Tag Archive for Coaching skills

Lots of players, little space – Help!!

Yesterday I had an email come in from a reader of the blog – or at least someone who stopped by for a visit. She asked:

I am currently coaching both a 5th and 6th grade team with a total of 22 players. However, we only have one small gym to use and we must practice them together a lot. Can you help me find drills to do that will include a lot of players?

I can totally sympathize with this problem. In my time coaching in England I was frequently forced to try to manage a lot of players in a small area – especially during try-outs for the university teams. It’s definitely a challenge.

The first thing I would bring up is something I know both USA Volleyball and Volleyball England – and I’m sure other federations – are proponents of at the grassroots/beginner level (and beyond). That’s mini volleyball. By that I mean not just playing small-sided games, but also playing on smaller courts. In England they have badminton courts in basically every gym. You can generally get 3-4 in the space of a volleyball court. Using them lets you go from 22 on one court to 5-8 on each court.

In the US badminton lines may not be as readily available, but it’s not hard to create them with tape, cones, etc. In terms of nets, you can use the badminton ones if you have them, or you can create your own long net to string across the gym. The great thing about working with beginners and youngsters is that you don’t really need to be overly concerned with net height. At Exeter the beginner group of university players often trained using standard badminton height nets.

USA Volleyball has a section on ideas for setting up mini courts in their mini volleyball guide.

The other idea I would toss out is stations. Break the gym up into areas where you can have players working on different skills. That will let you get them split up into smaller groups, which serves a similar purpose to mini volleyball. Smaller groups means more touches and less time standing around. You can then have them do movement and ball-control drills/games in 2s, 3s, or 4s.

As I mentioned previously, I’m actually working on a book aimed at helping coaches maximize their available resources. Being able to deal with high numbers/limited space is part of that. I would love to hear other ideas on how to do that. If you have one, definitely feel free to leave a comment below, Tweet it to @CoachingVB, post it on Facebook, or use the contact page to send it to me.

Recognizing players for good training

Player recognition for their performance in matches tends not to be something which needs all that much coaching focus. Those who do well in competition tend to get plenty of praise for it from all different corners. Though sometimes we do need to point out good play which is not so obvious to those outside the team.

Training is a different story. Some rare circumstances aside, practice is only attended by the team, so there is no external source of recognition. That means it has to come from within the group. If there’s a good team dynamic, players will tend to provide on-the-spot recognition for each other during the session. That covers one aspect of it. You, as coach, are responsible for the rest.

Importantly, a big part of “the rest” is setting and maintaining expectations. You want praise and recognition parceled out when it’s deserved and it’s the result of doing things the right way. Training is when that right way is being established and developed. That makes it a key time for recognition, and for warranted constructive criticism (handled in the right way, of course).

The question is how to dole out that recognition.

The Exeter women’s team I coached had I think a quite good way to recognize players for a good practice. At the end of each session I brought them together to talk about how things went. That’s when I reinforced what we were working on, go over any administrative details, etc. We would then do the team cheer to conclude. Then I selected a player who stood out in my mind as doing well that training to lead the cheer.

I did not initiate the procedure myself, as it was basically already in place when I started working with the team. I definitely found it worthwhile, though. Not only did it allow me to recognize someone for having a good session – by their own standards – at times I could also use it to recognize a player who perhaps hadn’t received much in the way of specific notice or otherwise I thought could benefit from being at the center of attention for a moment.

A side effect of using this team cheer leading is that it sometimes led to moments of levity. I surprised a lot of players by picking them, which led to some funny responses like monetarily forgetting how to start the cheer. One season I had two players whose names I always flipped for some reason. I would look at one of them in the cheer huddle, meaning for her to take the lead, but say the other one’s name.

Funny moments aside, one of the things I like about this particular recognition procedure is that it serves the desired purpose of giving a deserved pat on the back. It does so in a low key fashion, though. You want to avoid making a player uncomfortable by singling them out for praise. Also, you don’t want the team resentful of someone who gets individual praise. Those sorts of things can have severe effects on team chemistry.

The cheer approach represents one sort of recognition – that is for doing well over a period of time, in this case a practice. There should also be recognition of a more immediate nature when a player (or group) does something deserving of it. We call this positive feedback. 🙂

Handling slows starts with First to…

Does your team tend to get off to a slow start?

I know I’ve had teams do that. A couple seasons back I coached a women’s team in Division I of the English NVL. It seemed like every set we struggled at the beginning for some reason. You can get away with that when you’re clearly the stronger team. It can really put you in a bind against more competitive teams, though. I decided to try to do something about it.

Breaking the game up

Back in the olden days, when it was sideout scoring and matches were played to 15 points, coaches sometimes encouraged their teams to break games (we didn’t call them “sets” then) into segments. Each segment was 5 points. Some coaches went so far as to have different approaches or focal points for each of those segments.

The NVL uses FIVB rules, and incorporates a technical timeout when the first team reaches 8 points, and again when at 16. This is the same procedure seen in international matches. It also used at the professional level – though not all competitions incorporate these breaks. Essentially, each set is chopped into three segments, just as coaches did with the 5-point ones before. [Note: It was decided not to use technical timeouts for Rio 2016.]

The idea of segmenting a set is something that came up in my Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview with Mike Lingenfelter.

Using segments to start better

Taking a page out of the old coaching book, I decided to use the segment idea. I though it could be a way to improve how the team started each set in terms of focus and performance. I basically turned it into a mini game and challenged them to be the first team to 8 points.

It worked quite well.

We didn’t always win that initial mini game, of course. We did consistently play with much more concentration and intensity in those early points than we had done, though. I used the same technique with my university teams at times when I thought they’d benefit from a bit more early-set focus, even if they weren’t necessarily slow starters. When I had a similar issue with my Svedala team I thought of this idea as well.

Make sure to look for causes

Of course if a team consistently struggles with slow starts then some analysis should be made into why that is. Does it reflect warm-ups? Is it something in the pregame talk? Is there an issue in how the team trains? Using these mini games may help, but they aren’t a long-term fix if there’s some other underlying issue which needs to be addressed.

Players today!

“I really would not recommend the profession to anyone right now. Kids are different, kids, parents, administrators have way to much influence! Coaches hands are tied…..can’t push, can’t discipline…..parents and administration are one! YUK!”

Those comments are from a coach who was in the game at the NCAA Division I level for many years. They aren’t the only one I’ve heard these sorts of things from either. It even goes beyond volleyball – and beyond sports in general. I’ve heard similar sorts of views expressed by professors I know as well. They make me kind of chuckle in a way. After all, we always see the older generation complain about the younger one in some way, shape, or form.

Actually, from a coaching perspective the competitive part of me loves to hear that kind of stuff. There’s two reasons for that which might give me an advantage in either the coaching or recruiting arenas (or both). 🙂

The first reason is that I worked in a very player-centric environment while coaching in England. I didn’t have an administration to please (at least not directly), but rather a collection of student-athletes and their elected leaders. I essentially coached at their pleasure. That meant I had to earn and retain their respect. I had to both coach them on-court and guide them in the off-court club management. I must have done at least something right as they presented me with a signed ball (a legit one too!) at my final Christmas Party to thank me for my time with them.

The second reason is that I deal with my players as they are and am constantly asking the question of how to better communicate with, motivate, and educate this team or this particular individual. It could be viewed as having a growth rather than fixed mindset as I discussed in How do you view your coaching exams? I just think of it in terms of looking at the situation I’m currently in, getting the most out of things, and trying to find ways to improve it.

So to all those coaches out there whining about players today … hope you don’t have to go up against me because I’m going to eat your lunch! 😉

How do you view your coaching exams?

A while back Mark from At Home on the Court offered up a post on the subject of coaching and learning in volleyball (and sports in general). He made the comment:

The way I often put it is that the match is a test or exam of the coach’s work. 

The test/exam idea is one I’ve thought about in different ways over the years. It also comes up often in the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. Mark is absolutely right. Match competition is what we train our players for, after all. We spend countless hours thinking about line-ups and looking at systems. We also scout the opposition to find a competitive edge. Unfortunately, very often a coach’s grade on these exams is strictly based on winning or losing. This is potentially problematic on many levels.

Let’s put aside external expectations for the moment. Instead, let’s think internally. It is quite easy for a coach to equate their record with their self-worth. Wins are an indication of skill. At the same time, losing is a sign of failure. This is true even though outcomes are often determined by factors beyond our control. I personally dreaded coaching in matches sometimes. In the context of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, I had a fixed coaching mindset. I identified myself as a good volleyball coach. I didn’t want to risk being faced, through losing, with an indication that I wasn’t.

Side note: If you haven’t read Mindset yet, I recommend you do.

Somewhere along the way, though, I developed a more growth oriented match coaching mindset. These days matches are sources of feedback. They indicate the team’s progress and what we need to work on to improve and develop toward our objectives. Does that mean I don’t experience successes or failures? Does it indicate that I don’t want to win? Of course not! I just choose not to frame the outcomes in terms of my identity as a volleyball coach. Instead, I use them to help me see what’s working and where I could potentially use some improvement. And that goes WAY beyond just match coaching.

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 horrible drill for it’s intended purpose, 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, acting 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 match 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 wasn’t going to make it through the season with the team as I was finishing my major PhD work and preparing to enter the job market. The team leadership needed to be able to run trainings without a coach, as the odds of finding a replacement to finish the season weren’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.