Tag Archive for Coaching skills

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 featured 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 getting 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 give 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 is 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. 🙂

Convincing players random is better than block

John Kessel is a major advocate of making things as game-like as possible where volleyball training is concerned. In one of his blog posts he talks about the “false confidence” block training (simply doing reps) can create in players – and coaches. No doubt, John will continue to bang that drum. It’s a major feature of the USA Volleyball training philosophy, and shows through in the CAP program. It definitely showed through when I did my CAP III course.

I’ve done my fair share of that as well. Going beyond maximizing player contacts is one example. As game-like as possible is another. Episode #17 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast also has block vs. random training as its theme.

Here’s the question, though.

How do we convince players that more game-like training is better?

Once, during a serving and passing drill, the MSU setters took turns setting off of the pass. One asked why they did not just do one setter at a time. She wanted more repetition “to develop a rhythm”. My response was she never set two balls in a row in a game. She started to push back, but I told her she always does something in between. There’s hitter coverage and blocking and defense, among other things.

That mollified this particular player. I’ve had others on different teams, though, who felt like block reps were better than game-like ones. One of them once told me they let her pass without having to think about anything else. She was an OH who obviously had to think about attacking as well in actual game play. Plus, there’s that pesky issue of dealing with seam responsibility when passing next to another player.

Like in anything else, we have a mixture of personalities among our players. Some are open-minded and accept what you say. They are at least willing to try. At the other end is the close-minded group. They fight you on things. They say stuff like, “We’ve always done it like this,” or “This way works for me.”

It’s fine if those players aren’t key performers or team leaders. You can marginalize them if they persist with the negative attitude. If they are leaders, though, it creates a major problem. They say things like “This is stupid.” That has serious negative consequences for both team chemistry and coach authority. It cannot be tolerated.

So, how do we convince the more resistant players that more game-like training is superior to blocked training? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts or experience.

Coaching in a tough conference

I appreciate what it must be like to coach a middling team (or lower) in one of the Power 5 conferences in NCAA Division I. My current employer, Midwestern State University, is part of the Lone Star Conference. Based on the 2015 final rankings (the 2016 rankings aren’t yet available at the time of this writing), the LSC was the 4th strongest conference in NCAA Division II.

In the last couple of weeks we played three well placed teams from other conferences. One of them currently sits in a tie for third in the Great American Conference. We beat them in three using a line-up featuring our three freshmen as starters. Basically, we rested some of our normal starters.

The other two are second and third in the Heartland Conference. We lost to the latter in five at their place, but could have won it. Our freshman setter started the match, but didn’t play great. We put our starting junior setter in at 1-2 down and improved immediately. Just a bit too late.

Against the second place team, we again used our freshman setter to start. We brought our junior back for the final set, though. Other players were rotated as well, but we won easily in three.

All of this from a team currently sitting 8th out of 11 teams in the LSC with a 3-7 record.

Of course, as much fun as it is be to fantasize about playing in another conference, that’s not reality. For example, this MSU team would do exceedingly well in BUCS, where we competed when I coached at Exeter. The problem is such a team in BUCS for Exeter is not a reality. The recruiting prospects just aren’t there – though they are at some other schools.

The same is true of lower ranked conferences in NCAA volleyball. Teams there simply struggle to get the same caliber of athletes. Some of that is geographic. Teams in better volleyball regions just have access to more good players. Some of it is resource-based. Those in the best-funded, best-supported programs have a clear advantage.

This isn’t just the case in college volleyball. You can see it in professional volleyball as well. Even low level teams from the top leagues are strong enough to dominate the lower leagues. There are exceptions. Some leagues have one or two very well-funded teams that can compete with teams from stronger leagues.

The bottom line is we all must coach to the best of our abilities with the resources we have available to us.

Post-match team talks

During the 2016 women’s college season I witnessed a team having a lengthy post-match talk. It came after they lost a match to my team, Midwestern State. Interestingly, it looked like the assistant coach was the one doing most of the talking, while the head coach stood by fairly quietly.

This wasn’t a ranting, raving type of coach talk, though there was definitely a negative tone. I only heard bits and pieces. They made it sound like the focus was on mindset – at least during that part of the talk. The real standout about the meeting to me was its length. That, and the fact that it took place in the corner of the gym rather than in a locker room.

I’ve seen some ugly, long-winded post-match team talks in my time. Some involved teams I coached. Others involved teams I coached against. In the former, very rarely did I think that sort of meeting was productive (see Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive?)

In the case of witnessing a team scolding, my reaction comes in two forms. On the one hand, sometimes I feel bad for them. When I coached at Exeter, our men’s team beat a team from Northern Ireland in a playoff match. That coach, who seemed like a nice guy, laid into them for a ridiculously long time afterwards. I felt really bad for them. So did the guys on my team, who wanted to invite the other team out for a post-match pint (they do that in England).

The alternative reaction is more a competitive one. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to beating a team so badly that they get yelled at afterwards. It’s kind of like targeting a single opposing player to the point they eventually have to be subbed out. It’s a psychological victory above and beyond the one on the scoreboard.

Can’t help but wonder if coaches who yell at their team in public realize this? Or if they’re just trying to embarrass their players.

Why coaches and teams part ways

Volleyball Coach

There’s an interesting post on the German coaching blog Volleyball Freak. It takes on a subject which you don’t often hear discussed – when a team and a coach should part ways. There is a bit more to the article in terms of how to handle things, but I’ll focus on the Why? side of things.

Let’s have a look at the list.

Poor Training

This comes at things from two perspectives. One is the preparation of the coach in developing a good practice plan – one which addresses identified developmental needs. The other is whether the players are satisfied with the sessions. You may link the two, and to a degree that’s true. You can, however, have a situation where the players agree with the direction, but not with the execution.

For example, the team and the coach agree that work needs to be done on serve reception. They disagree, however, on how exactly what to do. This issue came up when I coached at Svedala. Some of the players wanted to just do reps, while I wanted to try to make things as game-like as possible.

Poor coaching during the match

Did the coach use an appropriate line-up? Were substitutions logical? Did timeouts get called at reasonable times, and were the coach’s comments useful? How was the coach’s demeanor on the sideline? Persistent problems in any of these areas can lead to a coach losing their position.

Unreliability

This one should be pretty clear. The team needs to know what to expect of the coach. This applies to all facets of the player-coach relationship and interaction.

Interpersonal Problems

This can be a tough one. The coach has to work with several different personalities, and sometimes one or more of those don’t mesh well with their own. As coach you ideally work well with all the players, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

This becomes a major issue when the conflict is with a team leader. If the coach can’t find a way to resolve the personal differences they can easily lose the team. That’s a bad situation all around.

Too high/low demands

The most often observed example of this is the coach’s competitive expectations not mismatched with those of the players. Usually, that’s an overly competitive coach in a situation where the players are more interested in having fun and being social. It can go the other way too, though.

Inadequate communication

This one is huge. It’s probably the biggest cause of player/coach issues because it leads to the problems outlined above. There are a couple of different ways communication is inadequate. One is simple lack of communication – the coach doesn’t talk enough to the players individually or the team collectively. Another is the coach’s communication is ineffective in that they can’t get across what they want the players to take away.

The relationship of trust is disturbed by other reasons

Sometimes things happen external to the player-coach interaction which negatively impact that relationship.

The list above is very much a list of team/player-coach issues that can develop. While in some situations the team decides its coach – which was my case coaching in England – in many circumstances there is an organizational aspect to the hiring (think university, professional club, etc.). In that case there will of course be considerations related to how the coach interacts with the players. There will also, however, be additional considerations based on other relationships and expectations.

In other words, if you want to keep your job as a coach you need to keep multiple constituencies happy. Sometimes you have to realize that attempting to do so conflicts with your own philosophy and beliefs, and you should leave rather than compromise them.

Learning some coaching lessons

A while back I came across a post on the Rivers of Thinking blog. It is about coaching mistakes and the need for reflection. In this case, they come from soccer. I think the ideas are pretty universal in coaching, however.

1) Be aware of how you communicate.

In the post, the author shares a situation where he felt quite pleased about after a training session. He thought it went very well. He was stunned to find out afterwards from one of the kids that his language choice was received negatively.
Not long ago I wrote a post on the subject of unconscious communication, which relates to this from a mainly non-verbal perspective. And of course there’s always the yelling issue. In this particular case, though, the issue was sarcasm.

Being very careful with sarcasm is a lesson I myself learned along the way. It’s something that you need to be cautious about using, especially with younger athletes. In fact, you should probably avoid it all together in youth sports. They will pick up on the tone, which comes off as negative rather than humorous.

2) Challenge the source of the coaching style you develop

In the blog post the author talks about finding himself copying the coaching style of an older coach with whom he was working. He didn’t realize it at the time, and only figured it out later in hindsight. It’s a variation on the “This is how I learned” trap.

Now, if you have an awesome coach at a roll model then copying them might not be the worst thing in the world. Even in that case, though, you will need to do things your own way, not just be a mimic. Ideally, you’d like to be a composite of all the good characteristics you’ve seen in other coaches.

3) You can’t always control what your athletes learn

Have you ever worked on something specific in practice and at the end found out the players learned something unplanned and unexpected? That is the situation the author describes in his post. He was working on offense, but one of his players learned a lesson about defense.

The lesson here is that players are individuals. They bring their own perspective and context to things. That means they aren’t always going to see things the same way as you do. As a result, they won’t always follow along the learning path you’ve devised for them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Vital Heynen talks about just this sort of thing in the following excerpt from his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview.

4) Remembering to reflect real game situations

This piece of advice has to do with the rules of practice games and drills allowing players to do things that would be the right decision in a match situation. The author uses the example of a rule he used one day that forced him to whistle a play dead even though the player made a good decision – one you’d want to see in a real game.

This is something that comes up when you have the players operating in a constrained way. It came up at times when I was coaching at Svedala. We used a lot of small-court play. Sometimes that lead to really good attacks – particularly quick middle hits – going out when they would have been great in a real match.

And sometimes players find a solution to the problem you’ve posed them that isn’t exactly what you were after.

It’s a balancing act. You have to find that line where you have the players working on the development needs you are focused on without forcing them into an unnatural situation.

5) Match day is about the players, not you

The final idea of the blog post is that coaches need to overcome the desire to control play and the feeling that their ego is tied up in the result. The point made is that match time is for the players to have fun with their teammates, work hard, and maybe learn some stuff along the way – especially when talking about younger athletes.

The idea of letting the players get on with it and not trying to control things as a coach is in part the subject of my post on the desirability of play-calling from the bench. It goes beyond that, though, to address sideline demeanor and emotional reaction to results.

These, of course, are just a small sample of the lessons we coaches can and should learn along the way. What lessons have you learned? Share you story!