Tag Archive for Coaching skills

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 current 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 getting scolded, 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 point (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 identify developmental needs. The other is whether the players are satisfied with the sessions. You may think the two are linked, and to a degree they are. 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!

Sometimes old ideas are the best ideas

A lot of good ideas have been around in the world for a long time, getting recycled periodically. They pop up in different forms. New perspectives are applied based on whatever the current generation needs. The packaging may change, but the underlying idea remains.

I wrote about one of these ideas a while ago. It’s the concept of becoming progressively unnecessary as a coach. I don’t take credit for that. It came from John Kessel. He himself picked it up at a USA Hockey seminar. There it was presented as coming from teaching.

Let’s really wind things back, though.

Here’s a quote attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Lao Tzu lived during about the 5th century BC. That means this concept is around 2500 years old. I don’t think it’s very likely Lao Tzu thought of it all by himself, though. Leadership in human endeavors goes back much further than that. No doubt someone else before him in ancient history thought the same.

Consider this when you come across a shiny new idea in coaching. Training ugly, the game teaches the game, mindset, and all of these related things are tossed around in our discussions.I’m not knocking any of them. Instead I’m saying they’ve been around for a long time. They maybe had different terms associated with them, but the concepts are nothing new.

My point in all this is that we don’t need to look for some new concept to become better coaches. Most of the best ones have been around for a while. We should definitely keep up with the research, but we should also not brush aside “old” ideas. There’s a good chance tomorrow’s new latest thing will be a repacking of a well-worn idea of the past.

Just look at the movie business! 🙂

The influence of culturally diverse players

The world has unfortunately experienced a number of traumatic recent experiences as I write this. Last week there was another major incident in France, and a coup attempt in Turkey. Not long before that was the attack on police officers in Dallas. Of a less violent nature – though perhaps no less traumatic for some – was the UK vote to leave the European Union.

Those are just a few in a long string of news items in the world over the last year.

Most volleyball coaches work almost exclusively with players from their own region. Yes, if you coach at a professional club, or at a major college or university, you get players from a wider area. The vast majority of youth teams, though, comprise of kids from the same general area as the coach. Even at the higher levels, all the players may be from the same country, so are culturally effected largely by the same things.

Gaining a broader perspective

Thanks to my experiences in England and Sweden, and my time with professional teams in Germany, I’ve had the fortune to work with volleyball people from many different countries and cultures. In England alone I coached players from about 25 different nations.

Perhaps thanks to my background in the financial markets, I probably have a broader interest and observation of world events than most. Granted, it’s not what it used to be. Still, I am more likely to watch Sky News than CNN.

A greater sense of empathy

Even with that broader global awareness, though, events in distant countries didn’t used to have much of a personal feeling about them. That’s no longer the case.

  • For most of three years I lived in the UK and coached UK players.
  • I coached French players
  • I coached Turkish players
  • In Sweden there have been a number of issue with migrants. Even before I lived there to coach Svedala, I coached two Swedish players. We have also interviewed two Swedish coaches for Volleyball Coaching Wizards.
  • I have not coached any Belgians, but two of the coaches we interviewed for the Wizards project are from Belgium.
  • Now I coach about 2 hours from Dallas.
  • Back in 2001 I was at Brown during 9/11. One of our players then was from Long Island, and had a parent who worked in NYC.

Of course not everything is a negative. Their were plenty of positive things along the way. Talking with players after I visited their homeland is one example which stands out in my mind.

Either way, links like that can’t help but increase cultural awareness. I have talked before about my feeling that working with players from so many different volleyball backgrounds – and with many for whom English is not their first language – has had a very positive influence of my ability to communicate. I think the cultural exposure is a positive as well. That’s both as a coach and as a human being. Even if it brings considerable sadness at times

If you think you’re a great coach, you’re probably a poor one

People Who Think They’re Great Coaches Often Aren’t. That’s the title of a recent article from the Harvard Business Review. Got you thinking about whether you’re a good coach? 🙂

The scenario at the very beginning of the article I found really funny.

Basically, a person describes themselves a pretty good coach. When asked why, the response is they “…attended a coaching course and learned many of the techniques of good coaching.”

This story reminds me of a very early Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview I conducted. In it, Portuguese coach Paolo Cunha talked about people thinking they were coaches just because they’d done a course or gotten a certification as we discussed issues with coaching education.

Getting to the main point of the article, researchers did a test. They had people assess their own skills. Then they had others assess them. About a quarter of the folks involved overrated themselves. Not only were they not as good as they thought, but they actually ended up in the bottom third based on the external assessments. This is pretty classic overconfidence, which is something l looked at a lot while doing my PhD.

To summarize the findings, “…if you think you’re a good coach but you actually aren’t, this data suggests you may be a good deal worse than you imagined.”

The article continues on, suggesting…

“Bursting the bubble of your illusion of superiority could be highly advantageous to your continued development as a leader. In fact, this is the best reason to find a way to obtain honest feedback about your coaching skills.”

So what are the problem areas? The article provides a list I encourage you to read. Not surprisingly, communication and working with others rank high. Integrity is in there as well.

Interestingly, the people who underrated their own abilities scored above average in their assessed ability (57% percentile). What do you make of that?

I think it speaks to an attitude of continuous development. Coaches who do not think they are great are more likely to keep learning. They look at their weaknesses and seek to improve upon them. Sounds like a good mindset to me!

Why coaching education fails

Volleyball Coach

Mark from At Home on the Court a while back flagged a really interesting article which criticizes common practices in coaching education and development. In particular, it lists the “ten really dumb things we do and call it Coach Education.”

That list is:

  1. Basing coaching education on sports science
  2. Failing to align coach development with athlete development pathways
  3. Believing competency based training is the new messiah
  4. Running workshops and conferences largely based on sports science, gimmicks, fads, and short cuts
  5. Giving token attention to mentoring programs
  6. Teaching outdated periodization processes
  7. Focusing more on teaching “what” and not “how” and “why”
  8. Creating courses based on the past, not the future
  9. Allowing course presenters who lack high level teaching, education, and communications skills
  10. Too much classroom-based coursework

I’m going to speak to a couple of points of particular focus for me. I encourage you, though, to read the full article.

I’ll just quickly touch on the sports science bit from #1. The main idea to that point is that as coaches we spend only a very small proportion of our time on this area of our work (the author suggests about 5%). In other words, it’s not a developmental area that is likely to have the biggest impact on our overall ability to do a good job as coaches. This is particularly true if you are – or intend to be – a full-time coach (or at least run your own program).

I especially like #4. It’s something that as a key part of Episode 3 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. We had a trio of interviewees share their views about the importance of how you react to presentations at conferences and clinics, and what you see other coaches do with their teams. I would add to that the fixation in those educational venues on games and drills and other technical/tactical elements. Think “How do I fix ….?” (see You don’t need a new drill).

The mentoring point of #5 is something that was among the first subjects I took on in this blog. I think it’s a major area in need to development in volleyball coaching circles, as too many of us don’t get that kind of guidance. Instead, we are thrown into things without much in the way of direction, advice, etc.

The idea of shifting from “what” in #7 is something which very much hits home to me. I used to be a very technically focused as a coach. At some point, though, my mentality started shifting. I began to realize that what’s going on between a player’s ears was the bigger issue which definitely gets into the “why” of things.

Coaches making excuses

A while back, Mark Lebedew challenged coaches to realize something. While they are happy to point out excuse-making among their players, they are oftentimes just as likely to do the same thing. We may not be as obvious about it, but we do it.

Once upon a time I wrote about a conversation with a fellow US college coach who complained about the attitudes of modern players. My instinctual reaction was to think to myself that I hope lots of other coaches think that way. If so, I’ll have loads of coaching success by being more adaptive.

I’ve had similar reactions on reading about or hearing other coaches comment about entitled players or whatever. Mark cited the example of the SMU women’s basketball coach. The women’s basketball coach at Wisconsin took a similar view in a video that went viral through the coaching ranks.

I personally don’t think of players in generational terms. I look to work with each player based on their own personality, learning needs, and the like. It’s my job as their coach to help them get to where they need to be mentally and physically. I will keep working until I find the right way to reach, teach, and motivate them. [Tweet this ]

Mark and I seem to be in agreement on that.

The rest of Mark’s post takes on losing coaches going beyond simple excuses (it was the refs, etc.). They let themselves off the hook by saying things like “They players gave it everything they had.” With the assistance of some notable coaches, he makes the point that success isn’t just about effort and commitment. Rather it is their proper application. It’s our responsibility as coaches to get that application properly targeted.

The one push back I would have on some of that stuff is there are times when your team simply lacks the talent to win. I find it hard to blame the coach for a loss in those circumstances or in them citing lack of talent as the reason for not winning. What I would look at, though, is whether the team played to the maximum of its capability – whatever that might be. Winning and losing may not be in the coach’s control. The manner in which they play is definitely something the coach is responsible for shaping, though.