Tag Archive for Coaching skills

How many points is a coach worth?

I documented in my coaching log my work with the University of Exeter’s women’s during the 2014-15 season. I also coached the men. Unfortunately, conflicting schedules saw me only coach the first team guys in matches twice. It was decided by the club for me to prioritize the women in those cases. One of those matches was a loss to the top team in the league. The other was a comfortable win over a team about on our competitive level. The guys played four additional matches. One was against the second best team in the league, one against the team they beat, and two against one of the other teams of about the same competitive level. All four were losses, though well-fought in the latter three cases.

After hearing at one stage about how they lost one 0-3, but with very tight scores, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we could have flipped things around and come out with a win if I were there for that match. That made me wonder how much impact a coach has on a match between two reasonably closely matched teams.

Obviously, as coaches our biggest impact comes in how we train our teams and prepare them beforehand. What impact, though, do we have come game day? Some suggest we can have a lot, but with a big bias to the negative.

The captain of the university men’s team two seasons prior once told me after a come-from-behind match victory that they wouldn’t have won without me. That sort of thing warms a coach’s heart. I don’t recall the specifics of the match to be able to say what particular influence I might have had on the outcome, though. We’ll never know if he was right or not.

The most direct influence we have is in the form of line-up decisions and substitutions. We also call timeouts. Those are overt interventions. Less obvious is the style and content of communication with the team and individual players during breaks. There are also tactical/strategic adjustments during the match.

I would venture to say that the more experienced the players and the higher the level of play the less influence the coach has during the match. This is especially true given all the scouting and game planning that gets done in advance. It’s different at lower levels. There’s a considerable amount of teaching happening. Also, less scouting information is available. I’d suggest there are more opportunities for the coach to influence things in different ways with those sorts of teams.

The closest thing I can offer up as a potential indication of the influence of a coach on match outcomes is the record of the teams coached during my time in England. They played a total of 189 matches, of which I was on the bench for 130. The win percentage for those matches is 6% higher when I coached than when I wasn’t. I’m not sure how valid that comparison is, though. We’re talking about effectively eight different teams. That’s the university men and women over three seasons and a local women’s team over parts of two seasons. It’s across five or six different league and cup competitions. Also, in some cases someone else coached the team (admittedly someone much less experienced).

For the purposes of this discussion it would be better if I dropped the clearly lopsided match-ups from the tally. I was definitely on both sides of those! We could also look at set and point differential comparisons. Unfortunately, I don’t have that level of granularity in my records. Even if I did, the comparison might still not have the right composition to be truly valid.

Any thoughts?

A Collection of Secrets of Brilliant Coaches

An article went up a while back on Huffington Post on the subject of coaching that I’ve meant to discuss for a while. It includes 35 “secrets”. They are generally worth looking through, but I wanted to address a few of them specifically.

6. Begin with the end in mind. This is all about knowing your priorities, which I’ve written about a couple of different times before (here and here to name two). You can’t map your course if you don’t know where you’re going!

14. Give feedback in short, clear, precise, action-oriented spurts. Coaches need to keep in mind that they aren’t lecturers – at least not when they are on the court. The more you talk, the less they train. You need to keep your interruptions short, to the point, and geared toward what the players need to do.

15. Are careful about how they measure success. This is a tricky one. The focus is meant to be on keeping things process oriented rather than outcome. That’s fine in general terms, especially since outcome depends on a lot of things out of our control. Unfortunately, as coaches we sometimes (oftentimes) have wins and losses as the key metric of our own success. We need to be able manage things from both perspectives.

27. End practice before the athlete is exhausted. Mark Lebedew, in a post from At Home on the Court, talks about something related to this. From a technical training perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to exhaust our players. Granted, conditioning is a different story, but in that case priorities must be clear. This is something that you probably need to communicate to your athletes. Some of them will feel their level of fatigue at the end of a session equates to session quality.

34. Understand that fun is an essential element in training, no matter how elite an athlete becomes. In the grand scheme of things, players definitely need to have fun training for and playing their sport. I would argue, though, that as coaches we sometimes have to put our players and teams under pressure in less than fun kinds of ways to help them grow and develop. I periodically will design a session that I know is likely to be frustrating because those sorts of things happen in matches and the players need to learn how to overcome it.

Keep your priorities in mind

When I was coaching at Exeter, the men’s team captain once asked if he could run about 20 minutes worth of defensive work in training that night. I let him do it. In part it was because the guys could use the work. I also wanted to see what he was going to do.

Alas, what came about was the sort of thing I tend to see among relatively new coaches. The drill he used was one in which a player in 5 dug a line attack and a cross hit, then switched to 1 to dig a cross ball, then a line attack. Two to three players rotated through the drill as a group, doing 20 total rotations. It’s not a bad drill, but in this context suffered from issues of intent and timing.

Conflict of focus

I did a bit of after-action discussion with the captain following the training session to give him feedback. First, I talked about cutting back on the number of times players went through the drill. With each player going through 20 times, that’s 80 dig attempts. That’s a lot of time in the drill and a lot of swings by the guys doing the hitting. It’s also a lot of standing around time for those not directly involved (though they were collecting balls, attacking as target, and feeding the hitters). I told him I would have probably cut it back to maybe 5-7 times through. If I wanted lots of reps to have guys do the drill a couple of times. His response was that he wanted a conditioning element.

Now, wanting to include a conditioning aspect to drills isn’t a bad thing. In this case, though, the captain also had an expressed intention of working on digging mechanics. Those are two very contradictory points of focus. Changing mechanics is something you’re going to struggle to do when a player is simply just trying to make it through the end of the drill.

Bad timing

My other issue with the drill was that it failed to account for the calendar. That training was sandwiched between two matches, and only 90 minutes in length. We needed to spend the bulk of the time looking at where we wanted to get better from the prior one to try to take a step forward in the next. It was neither the timing nor the length of session to have a conditioning oriented drill. At the same time, the drill went at least twice as long as intended. I was fine with a 20 minute defense drill as it could be an extension of warm-ups. That would leave me with about an hour to work on team stuff. What I ended up with was about 30 minutes to get in game play.

As I said, these are kind of classic new coach mistakes. They decide they want to work on something, or get excited about a new drill they’ve come across, and jump right in without considering priorities and context.

You may be asking why I let it go on so long. The answer is long-term thinking. One training wasn’t really going to change a heck of a lot. On top of that, I probably won’t make it through the season with the team as it won’t be long now before I finish my major PhD work enter the job market. The team leadership needs to be able to run trainings without a coach, as the odds of finding a replacement to finish the season aren’t very good. By letting the captain see how the drill ran, how long it took, and providing feedback I hopefully helped to make things better in the long run.

Why use coach-initiated drills or games

Regular reader and frequent commenter Kelly recently emailed me in regards to one of my coaching log entries. It related to coach-initiated volleyball drills/games.

“I have to ask…Why are you initiating the drills? My understanding as many of our American coaches are realizing for every ball we touch the less our athletes touch thus prevented from learning. I clearly understand the argument that the athletes do not have the control as the coach. That is sooo true, but will they ever if the coach is continuously contacting the ball. Your last segment 6 v 6 scrimmage you mention below really confused me in why you were serving. I would think the coach’s position would be to evaluate and instruct as needed. I mean no disrespect, one’s experience determines how one coaches their teams. Not saying you are wrong. Just trying to understand why.”

What Kelly is primarily referring to is a 6 v 6 I ran. I served to the A side rather than having a player do it. I honestly can’t remember when I had last served at a team in that fashion. It’s not something I favor doing. In this particular situation, however, my decision to do so was motivated by two things.

First, I had arranged the B side such that the only two really solid servers were in the front row. I needed them there to provide more of a challenge to the A side at the net. Those in the back row were inconsistent in terms of putting the ball in play. And when they did they were not particularly challenging.

Second, it gave me the opportunity to apply pressure to the A side in ways that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible (serving a given player in a certain way, putting the ball in a seam to test the communication, etc.).

In all honesty, the first reason was the primary motivator. The second was really just a nice byproduct.

Generally speaking, I am big on maximizing player ball contacts. I like to use over-the-net pepper variations and small-sided volleyball games to get players touching the ball frequently in so-called “random” situations. Something like a serving & passing drill is a bit more “block” oriented, but still features lots of player initiated ball contact (here’s more on block vs random training, and why one is better than the other).

There are three basic times when I’ll insert myself as ball initiator.

1. When I want more precision and/or power than players are currently capable of producing.

2. If I want to control the tempo, usually meaning increasing training intensity by initiating new balls at a faster pace than players would be able to do so themselves.

3. When I want to level out a competitive imbalance by making the first ball harder/easier for one side.

I should note, however, that if I have the available bodies I will have players initiate new balls rather than do it myself. For example, in bingo-bango-bongo, if I have 14 players I will use the two not currently in the play to send in the free balls. Granted, putting in free balls isn’t exactly working on high quality contacts, but it helps keep them involved and engaged.

Cultural differences or coaching?

An American coach abroad recently made some observations about what she’s seen as the difference between coaching in France and coaching in the States. I actually had the captain of the women’s team, who’s French, give the article a read. These were her comments:

It is all very true. Sport for kids is not value as a possible career or an enhancement of your learning/profile for the future, it is seen as an obstacle to education. There is zero school competition, the notions of varsity or sport scholarships are not available in the French Sport vocabulary.

I would not say all sport kids have that ethos but until your more ‘elite training’ that is what you get, agreed 100%.

In most sports, especially for a woman, to get in an elite academy (except football who are entirely self-funded by their federation, i.e. zero public funding needed) all athletes have to maintain grades above average, and get dropped out of the programme if they drop their grades, from one year or semester to the other. Schools are VERY reluctant to welcome sport kids. Thank God, they are free and open for all until reaching 16. After that good luck finding a college or university accepting you on a sport contract!

I have my own first-hand experience with unreliable athletes and commitment issues. I’ve seen it as an issue with a number of different teams and clubs in my time in England. Here, as in France, there isn’t the same sort of scholastic link to sports as there is in the US. Additionally, in the UK they don’t have a professional volleyball structure either, which France does at least have.

So I get it. And to be honest, I’ve seen similar issues with club teams in the States.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel like developing the right expectations in the team would help with those attendance issues. There was a major difference in how things went my first year coaching the university women and my second year. Expectations were changed and attendance was radically better. That is carrying over into this year.

I won’t claim that it’s all about coaching, of course. The players have to create the expectation amongst themselves. The coach can influence that, though. After all, one of the first rules of coaching beginners is to design things to encourage them to come back for more! There’s no reason we shouldn’t have the same attitude coaching non-beginners.

Lessons learned in odd places

Back in 2014 I had a conversation about volleyball stuff with one of my returning players. It was her fourth season with the university club, her third playing for me. I think it was maybe about her 5th year overall in volleyball. She told me that something dawned on her while playing doubles with a couple of other players. It was the importance of “finishing the play”. By that she meant getting the kill when the opportunity presented itself.

I know what you’re thinking here. Kind of a blinding flash of the obvious.

To be fair, the player in question until basically the prior year was mainly a libero. At least she was a strongly defense/passing oriented player. In my first year coaching I used her a couple times as an OH, but more out of requirement than preference. In my second year the attacking side of her game really started to develop. She still mainly thought of herself as a defender at that point, though, and didn’t really get why people liked hitting so much. The strong defense and ball-handling, combined with low error hitting made her a really good O2 for my team, which had a couple of higher risk O1 types.

After a summer of playing beach doubles (which she hadn’t really done before), I sensed an attitude shift. Maybe hitting was more interesting than she thought. 🙂

I think the beach play started to get her thinking and seeing better, but she told me what motivated the “kills are good” thoughts that day was getting tired during long rallies. OK, not exactly the way I’d have preferred that lesson be learned, but you take what you get sometimes.

The takeaway from all this is that sometimes you have to look at things differently as a coach. And sometimes you have to put players under a different kind of pressure to get the type of gains in their play you’re after. One conversation had me thinking about ways I could get that group of players more focused on scoring points.

The more you talk, the less they train

One day the Exeter university club I coach for did the first of its taster sessions for the new year. It was Fresher’s Week, which is a bit like Orientation for teams back in the States. As part of it the various student organizations put on events to encourage new members to join up. For volleyball it’s a question of having them come into the gym and do some drills and games and stuff.

These taster sessions can be quite big affairs. The prior year both sessions had over 100 people. That’s a lot for what we had available to us in terms of gym space. This time we probably only had about half that number because it was so early in the week. We had others later on that were better attended.

One of the problems with these sessions, aside from the large numbers in general, was that a sizable fraction of the players are beginners. It was great for the sport and for the club, of course, but it created a challenge. They needed to be taught and couldn’t really be mixed in with the non-beginners. Actually, the non-beginners weren’t generally miles ahead of their peers, but that’s another discussion.

Rookie coach mistake

Anyway, the club was structured such that experienced members took on the role of coach for those in the lower levels – Beginners and Intermediates. One of the players who was on the women’s team the prior two years took charge of the beginner group that day. She made a rookie mistake. She started by talking to them for quite a few minutes before getting them started. Coaching stuff aside, that’s not something you want to do in a taster session when you’re supposed to be selling new people on joining your club and getting involved in volleyball.

Later in the session I had a chance to talk with this player. I told her she needed to spend less time talking and more time letting the players get on with it. Her response was not surprising. She said, “But they’ll do it wrong!”

Yup. They’ll do it wrong. You know what? They’re going to do it wrong anyway. You have to let them. That’s how they learn.

I told her, do a demonstration to show them how, then let them get on with it. From there you can go around and make individual corrections. Maybe you need to bring them back to reinforce something to the group if you see most players making the same mistake. If so, make it quick and then get them back to work.

The more time you spend talking, the less time they spend training.

Reader Question – Developing a 3-Middle Hitter Scheme

I had an email come in the other day from a reader.

How would you defend against a three middle offense?  Currently we are running a three middle offense, but are concentrating on being in the right position and running effective plays.  I think we need to change our thinking.  Switch to how someone defends against it, then exploit any expected weakness.

I asked for clarification on what was meant by 3-middle. How they would be employed? I got the following:

We have three players who would normally play middle. 

The starting rotation:

Middle, Outside, Middle

Outside, Middle, Setter

3 rotations have only one middle in the front … 3 rotations have 2 middles in front.  Depending on the pair of middles, one will switch to OH, while one plays Middle … or one will switch to Right Side, while one plays Middle.

Since one of our Middles is left handed, offensively we can run double slides.  We can also run a quick with one middle at the pin hitting a high outside.

I actually used a very similar type of system with a 16-and-under girls Juniors team a number of years back. I described it in the post Problem Solving: Three middle triangle. By posting this up here I hope to encourage some discussion. I’ll start it off with some thoughts of my own.

The right line-up?

I have an immediate question about a rotation where both outside hitters are in the front row together. It means you also have two middles in the back row with the setter in the same rotation. I don’t know how strong a right side attacker and/or blocker the team has with one of those OHs. I also don’t know the passing/defense talents of the MB not being replaced by the libero – or whether a DS is being subbed in on them in the back row. It strikes me that could be a sticky rotation if the personnel aren’t right.

With a lefty in the mix, I would very seriously consider playing with them at OPP. That said, a lefty hitting OH definitely causes issues for opposing blockers. Having them in the middle can be a bit trickier because the setter needs to change the placement of quick sets. It’s not impossible, just will take time to develop.

Opposition Defense

Let’s switching back to the question of about how the other teams might defend against a 3-middle team. I think quite a bit is depends on the opposition. Some teams will play the same defensive structure regardless of what the other team is doing. Either they feel they have their best possible configuration in place, or they just don’t know any different.

If I were an opposing coach able to scout your team (and with the players able to use such information), I would look at the tendencies of your team in certain types of situations and of your players in terms of where they like to hit. I would then try to make you work away from your strengths. There really isn’t a whole lot you can do to prevent me trying to do that beyond not letting me see you play. That doesn’t necessarily mean I can stop you, though. If your team executes, there may not be much I can do to stop it even if I have my team optimally positioned to do so.

Of course you do similar scouting of the opposition defense. Your goal should be to maximize the frequency with which your team can match it’s strength up against the other team’s weakness. For example, you could decide to have one of your nominal middles (is a middle who plays outside really a middle?) hit OH in one match to go up against a short setter. They could hit OPP in another match to attack a short outside hitter. Another example is to spread the offense out against teams that tend to pinch/bunch their block. Alternatively, you can run a narrow offense against teams who tend to put their wing blockers near the pins.

Playing to your strengths

It’s always hard to provide advice in a situation like this. You don’t know the level of competition. You don’t know the type of players involved, team priorities, coaching philosophy, etc. There is a compelling line of reasoning, not just in coaching but generally in life, that you should play to your strengths. Really work on developing them to a superior level and applying them as much as possible. That topic is better left for a separate discussion in its own right. It has some value in this context as a point of consideration, though.

If this team’s strength is its three player who can play MB, then it makes sense to identify the ways they are most effective. Then you set the team up to put them in those positions as frequently as possible. For example, if two of the MBs are excellent slide hitters, figure out how to configure the line-up to give them lots of opportunities to hit the slide. In this sort of situation you’re not really thinking a great deal about what the other team is doing. Instead you’re creating players able to take advantage of whatever the situation offers. Continuing with the slide example. work with the hitters on their ability to attack with a variety of shots – line and cross, tip and/or roll shot, block-out and high hands – and in different positions relative to the setter and at different tempos.

In other words, figure out what’s generally your strongest line-up and style of play. Then relentlessly work on getting better at it.

A personal volleyball coaching fitness reminder

You want to know one of the biggest things I got out of my three weeks with professional teams in Germany back in August of 2014? It was actually better coaching fitness. The last time I coached on a regular basis prior to that was in March at the end of the BUCS season. I did a couple of training sessions ahead of South West Championships in May, then the two days of the tournament. In July I helped out with England Cadet and Juniors trials. Aside from that, though, it was several months of being very focused on my PhD work. That meant many hours sitting in front of a computer. Not good for coaching! Or for my general well-being.

My first couple of days in Germany spending about 6 hours a day on my feet were very painful. I had all kinds of problems with my back and neck. My feet hurt. My knee ached. It was brutal. Over time, and with the help of a lot of stretching, things got better. By the end I could be on the court for two full sessions a day without any issues.

I returned to regular training with the university teams the last week of September. You know between the end of my trip and then I did everything I could to stay active so I didn’t revert back to where I was before my trip. I might have even done some of these exercises while I’m working on campus.