Tag Archive for Coaching skills

Don’t teach what you don’t want learned

I’ve written before on the subject of body language and being conscious of the fact that we as coaches are constantly being observed (here, here). A while back I saw an example of this. A coach was not conscious of how they acted on the sideline, and by extension the potential impact it had on their team. This happened when I was coaching in Sweden. I meant to write about it a while back.

This observation happened during a 2nd division match. One team was favored. It was the coach of the other team that is the subject of this story.

During the first set the underdog team was doing well. They even got out to a lead and were in a good position into the middle of game. During that time their coach was pretty animated. They were moving around on the sideline and talking to the players in a really positive fashion.

Then the score started to turn. The favored team went on a run and you could see the psychology shifting. After their team had given up several points in a row, the coach in question actually went and sat on the bench. They spent much of the rest of the set there. Instead of talking with the team on the court, as they had been doing, they were now talking with their assistants. It wasn’t that they’d stopped paying attention. They definitely weren’t as engaged with what was happening in the play, though.

What sort of message do you think that sent to their players? I can’t imagine it was anything positive. I’m not going to say I know what they were thinking, but it wouldn’t surprise me if on some level at least a few of them were feeling like, “Coach has given up on us.”

Anyone who coaches long enough will have an experience where a player brings up something you might not even recall saying or doing. It is amazing the things they pick up on at times.

Similarly, sometimes players receive a message you never intended to send. I remember one of the players at Brown saying I’d said something to her that I would never have said. It was completely counter to my nature. Somehow, though, she interpreted something I said or did in that way – no doubt with the influence of her own internal biases and expectations (we see/hear what we expect to see/hear).

This is all part of the communication side of coaching which is SO important. It comes up often as a key skill in the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. There’s the saying, “You haven’t taught it until they’ve learned it.” You can flip that around as well to say, “If they’ve learned it, you’ve taught it.”

Don’t teach things you don’t want learned because you weren’t paying attention to the message you were sending.

Book Review: Gender and Competition by Kathy DeBoer

I’ve had Gender and Competition  by Kathy DeBoer on my list of coaching books to read for a while now. As a male volleyball coach who has mainly worked with female athletes (though having coached a few male teams along the way), I have long been interested in the differences in how you need to approach coaching the two genders. Kathy’s book has come up many times in the discussions I’ve had with other coaches on the subject. That includes multiple Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews I’ve conducted.

Bottom line? Read this book!

You’ll find it a pretty quick read. It comprises just four chapters that add up to a little over 150 pages. Kathy’s writing style strongly favors story telling. The book is full of anecdotes from her coaching and athletics administration career. Basically, it’s teaching by way of example.

There’s one key phrase that I’ve heard attributed to Kathy on the basis of this book. It goes something along the lines of, “Men battle to bond and women bond to battle.” While I don’t recall seeing that exact phrase in the book, certainly it is what is expressed when looking at the differences in how the genders approach competition. It’s something that comes out very early in the text.

The first three chapters look to describe the difference in communication style and general approach to life, competition, and cooperation between men and women. It also looks at the challenges they pose. This isn’t true just for cross-gender interactions, but even for same gender ones, as Kathy demonstrates in some examples of her interactions with her own female athletes. The forth chapter focuses on advice for how to deal with the differences from both perspectives.

I can tell you that a lot of what Kathy talks about in terms of how men and women approach competition and the differences in how the two genders view leadership ring very true to me. I’ve seen them in my own coaching and have heard similar views from fellow coaches.

I can’t recommend Gender and Competition more strongly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a male or female coach. It doesn’t matter whether you coach male or female players. You will gain insights that will help you do a better job working with your athletes – as well as colleagues, supervisors, and everyone else in your life.

 

Sticking to your training philosophy

A question was posed in a volleyball coaching group on Facebook. It went like this:

“So my team is pushing back on my approach of training ugly and limiting/avoiding singular focus drills. We started out winning our first tournament, but after a series of unfortunate events they don’t believe in it or the process. Any thoughts or helpful advice????”

In case you’re not aware, the “training ugly” concept is one focused on random (game-like) training rather than block (straight reps). It also celebrates making mistakes along the way (think Climbing Mistake Mountain).

As I’ve experienced myself, sometimes the players push back. They say they want more reps. I got it from some of my players at Svedala – mainly with respect to serve reception and defense. To my mind, there are two issues which need addressing.

First, the players probably don’t have an understanding of the benefits of random training over block training. After all, more reps is a good thing, isn’t it? The chart I included in the Going beyond maximizing player contacts post shows a pretty clear advantage to random training. We have a sales job to do in this regard. We need to convince them that one game-like repetition is worth multiple reps that aren’t game-like.

Second, we should be careful that we don’t go too far in terms of creating a high error environment. This is something I addressed in What percentage of reps should be good? The approach in the USA women’s gym is to try to be at about 2 out of 3 reps be successful ones. More than that an you’re not pushing enough. Less than that and you run the risk of leading players into frustration. It’s a balancing act.

Of course at the end of the day being able to show players how much they are improving with your training method would be of considerable value. The problem is this isn’t always very easy to do. And outcomes (like winning tournaments) isn’t really a good measuring stick because of the various influences involved (the competition, player availability, etc.). If you can find a way to do it, though, it will go a long way in helping your credibility with the players, which ultimately is at the core of it all.

You don’t need a new drill

“Are there any drills that you do to help with your blockers timing?”

“Any drills to help my middle not approach too close to the net when she hits?”

“Does anyone have a favorite drill that teaches top spin serving?”

These are just some of the examples of the types of queries you will often find if you spend time in a volleyball coaching forum or discussion group. In some cases you’ve got a coach looking for a new idea to shake things up in their training. Too often, though, they reflect what to me seems like a “give me a pill to cure what ails me” type of mindset.

If you find yourself wanting a new drill to “fix” something a player or a team is having a problem with, stop for a minute and think about things. Chances are, you don’t need a new drill. The ones you have will do just fine.

Let me take the first example above having to do with block timing. Ultimately, the player needs to learn to time their jump to the hitter’s attack. How do you do that? You practice blocking against hitters. There’s really no other way to do it. So how do you get blockers going up against live hitters? Run any game or drill where there’s living hitting and blocking.

More about focus and feedback than activity

It’s not the activity, as long as it has the blockers facing hitters. It’s about the coaching cues and the focus. Any game or drill that features the skill you want to improve can be used so long as the attention is being given to what you want to work on in that instance.

It’s also about the feedback. In fact, that is probably the biggest consideration. This is part of what I talked about in the Fixing bad passing mechanics post. In some cases the feedback is inherent in the activity – missed hit, service error, bad pass, etc. In many cases specific feedback in the form of video and/or coach observation is required.

When you think in terms of giving a player/team opportunities to execute the skill or tactic you want to develop, with specific focus, and being able to provide meaningful feedback you’ll realize there are lots and lots of options.

Want to work on serving? Do something that includes serving. Want to working on serve reception? Do something that has passers receiving balls from servers. Want to work on hitter transition? Do something that requires players to attack after having blocked, passed, or defended.

It’s really that simple. A new drill or game isn’t going to change the primary needs of focus, cues, and feedback.

What makes for a good coach?

Previously, I wrote on the subject of whether great players make great coaches. Here I want to talk about what sort of talents or skills are required to be a great coach. This is something that we ask in the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. Here are a few thoughts of my own mixed in with a few shared by the Wizards.

So where to start…?

Playing experience

Well, let me first address the playing experience question. I do think having played the sport is beneficial. In particular, playing at the level you’re coaching (or at least a reasonable facsimile) is useful. It provides you with a perspective that can sometimes help understanding what the players are going through and how to communicate with them. Having this experience isn’t necessary. The lack of it can be overcome. It just tends to make things easier – especially early in one’s career.

Playing position

Here’s something else that falls in the “useful, but not required” category. In baseball, you often see catchers become managers. It’s a position with a lot of leadership requirements as well as one which includes a broad perspective on the game. To my mind, setter is similar in volleyball. Because the setter is at the heart of most of what’s going on for a team, they inherently develop an understanding for tactics and strategy, plus have considerable work as leaders. Again, this doesn’t mean that non-setters can’t coach, or couldn’t be good coaches, just as not every manager in baseball used to be a catcher. It’s just that being a setter gives one a leg up in many ways.

Communication skills

This is where coaches can really get separated. If you want to be a great coach you need to be a good communicator. Technical knowledge is pretty easy to gain. Read a few books. Attend some clinics and seminars. Watch a bunch of matches. The key is being able to communicate that to your players. Doesn’t matter how much you know if you can’t pass that on effectively. Think about the example of a professor who is a true expert in their field but can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. You don’t want to be that type of coach.

Organizational skills

You may be wondering at this point, feeling like organizational skills aren’t really coaching. If you are then you need to adjust your thinking. They may not have much to do with what you’re doing on the court with your players, but they have a lot to do with how you structure things – including stuff as basic as practice sessions. Strong organizational skills help your develop good, effective practice plans. And that’s just the beginning. There are so many parts of coaching which take place off the court where your skills in administration and management are put to the test.

Put players first

At its core, coaching is an exercise in service to another. We are guiding and teaching and motivating others, but it’s those others that actually do all the real work. As such, we must be prepared to put the welfare of those we coach ahead of our own. This isn’t to say there isn’t some ego in coaching. It takes some just to believe that you can do the job. It’s a question of whether you’re coaching for you or for those on the team.

Coaching experience

This one seems pretty obvious, but let me provide a bit of detail. A couple of the Wizards have specifically talked about the need for developing coaches to get as much head coaching experience as they can because of the things you learn when you’re the one making the decisions. I would extend that by suggesting that you get as broad an experience base as you can because the more different types of situations you face the better you’ll be equipped to take on the variety of challenges you’ll face along the way.

I’m not sure I’d call this a comprehensive list of desirable skills or traits. I think it’s a reasonable starting point, though. Definitely feel free to share your own thoughts through the comment section below.

Fixing bad passing mechanics

A reader of the blog has a problem with one of their players. Specifically, it relates to bad passing mechanics. Here’s the note I received:

“I am a relatively new coach and this is my first season coaching boys. I have one boy on the team in particular that I’m having a hard time with his passing skills. He is doing what I call butterfly arms (Looks like he’s swimming the butterfly stroke) and delayed foot movement during passing. He waits until the ball is almost on him, then swings his arms backwards and around to get them into his hitting stance then leans forward instead of shuffling to get under the ball.

I’ve tried all kinds of passing and footwork drills with him (rolling the ball and having him shuffle to get it between his legs, having him hold his arms out, shoulder width apart and tossing him the ball without requiring foot movement, etc.) and I haven’t been able to cure this extra movement. Needless to say, he shanks a LOT of passes. Do you have any suggestions for drills or repetitions to help this?”

I’m having a hard time visualizing exactly what the problem is with the arms. I think I’ve got a general idea, though. In a case like this my first thought is the player needs to see himself to be able to understand what’s happening.

What I would start by doing is having the player watch some good passers in action. That could potentially be someone on his own team. It could be someone that they play against. Of course, it could also be some prominent high level players that could potentially be bigger role models for them. That stuff should be easy enough to find on YouTube, etc.

Once the player knows what good passing mechanics looks like, I would get them watching themselves pass. You could use one of the apps like Coach’s Eye (I think) that allow you to do side-by-side comparison of video. More than that, though, I’d want to be able to give the lad persistent feedback by using video delay, if you can (ideas for a set-up are here and here). That would let him see himself basically every repetition. He can then compare what he’s doing with what he’s seen is good mechanics. No better feedback than that!

Beyond the video, I don’t think it’s the actual drill or game that really matters. It’s more about finding the right cues to use with him. Those are the things that carry through across all activities, so you can include them throughout practice, which is important. The player needs to learn to pass in game situations, so you need to be able to have those cues established and ready for use.

Be careful, though, and don’t overload the kid. Try to only focus on one or two things at a time. If you have too many points of emphasis it’s not going to work.

How do you motivate players to win?

A reader sent me the following question about keeping a team focused and having the killer instinct when they have the opportunity to win.

As a club volleyball coach for several years, one of the challenges I face mostly is motivating my players to maintain their winner’s mentality… if anything their killer instinct. My current age group are 13s and 14s and they have the talent and skills but mentally, it’s a rollercoaster — they can’t seem to maintain the aggressiveness and fail to beat the teams they can and should beat…. just too many mental mistakes. I’ve collected many sports motivational quotes and use them during our timeouts and team meetings but can’t seem to absorb. I’ve used some of your drills as well.

I had two initial thoughts on reading this question.

Understand gender differences
The first was to wonder if the coach in question is talking about a girls’ team – and got confirmation that this is indeed the case. It’s been my experience that female players tend to be less naturally competitive than their male counterparts, and instead more cooperative. I think this is probably even more true for younger players. I’ve had conversations with other coaches on this subject – male and female – and they generally agree.

This is something Kathy DeBoer wrote in her book Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently. She made the observation men battle to bond and women bond to battle. In my experience, it’s very true.

A lack of competitiveness definitely doesn’t apply to all female athletes, of course. The setter I had at Svedala, for example, is one of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet. That means you need to consider the individual aspect of things along the way. You could have a mixture of competitiveness levels, which impacts how you try to address things.

I think the broader point here is that for certain types of players or teams it’s best not to address competitiveness just from the perspective of winning for winning’s sake. You need to think about looking at things in other ways. Winning could be seen as an indication of excellence in performance or teamwork, reaching a joint objective, or something else which is important.

An example of that would be my Exeter women’s team from 2013-14. They had the collective goal of reaching Final 8s in Edinburgh. To get there, they had to win matches, so they were very motivated to do so. Without that strong group objective, they probably wouldn’t have been so focused on winning.

Focus on non-win related objectives
The second thing that came immediately to mind when reading the email above is that the coach needed to shift the focus away from winning and on to something else. This can be especially helpful when playing weaker competition – or alternatively, when playing a better team from a different perspective.

When I was coaching at Exeter we often faced teams that could have been considered inferior. In those situations I went in with specific areas of focus for the team for that match. An example was serving. I’d tell the team I wanted them to focus on their more aggressive serves or their serving accuracy. Against another team the focus might have been on our offense or some other facet of the game. In every case the idea was to work on things I wanted to develop or improve upon for the more important matches down the road.

In all these cases, while I certainly wanted and expected the team to win, I put the focus on process rather than outcome. Obviously, what I had them concentrating on was things that I felt would contribute to winning.

Breaking things down into chunks
Another thing which might help in situations like those described in the email is breaking each match down into smaller “games. This is something which got discussed in a recent episode of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. I encourage you to give that a listen as Wizard Mike Lingenfelter shares his own method for doing this, and my podcast partner Mark and I offer our own thoughts on the subject.

Thoughts from readers?
There are other things I know coaches do to try to encourage competitiveness. I’d love to hear what readers use to this end – what they’ve found useful and what hasn’t worked. Use the comment section below to share your experience or ideas – or questions if you have them.

 

Playing for each other

Anson Dorrance is the head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team. His program has won more than 20 national championships. I read his book Training Soccer Champions back in the very early days of my coaching career. Needless to say, I think he’s worth listening to any time you get a chance to hear him talk.

Here’s a video of Anson talking about getting players to play together by giving them a common focus. Warning: Anson shares a couple of touching stories, so you may need a hankie. 🙂

 

Structured learning vs. overt teaching

While reading this blog post on the different values of explicit vs. implicit teaching and learning, I got to thinking about some coaching conversations I’ve had.

Let me define those terms. Explicit is what most of us probably think of in terms of the teaching/coaching/learning process. It is about showing or telling someone how to do something and then them going out and doing it. Implicit is more about players figuring out how to do things for themselves. They get an objective, and are left to sort out how to accomplish it.

Once upon a time, I posted on the idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic development based on something John Kessel wrote. It follows along a very similar thought process as the explicit vs. implicit one outlined above. Both have at their core the idea of allowing players (in our case as coaches) figure things out for themselves.

Admittedly, this is a hard thing for many coaches to handle. Letting our players come up with the best solutions to a given “problem” can feel awfully lazy to someone who believes their role is one of teaching and guiding. We feel like we should be doing something. This goes doubly so when you consider those evaluating us in some fashion or another – owners, athletic directors, board members, parents, media, etc.. You feel like you need to do something to make it look like you’re actually working and not just standing their watching.

The difference is teaching vs. facilitating. If our athletes learn better by finding their own solutions to the problems presented by game situations, then it behooves us as coaches to assist them in that process. This isn’t done by telling them what to do, but by putting them in situations to help them come to the desired conclusion. In other words, we create a structure in which the desired learning takes place.

A learning structure example

Let me provide an example of something I use in this way. The exercise called The Hard Drill is basically a cooperative back row game which serves many purposes. On the physical side, it works on back row attacking and defending against such. Depending on how you set it up, it can also work on setting in an out-of-system context.

More importantly – at least for me in how I use the drill – are the mental aspects.

This is very much a “beat the drill” type of exercise. The players need to learn how to most efficiently accomplish the objective. There are a couple of key things involved in that. One is to focus on setting to only the most effective hitters. The second is to attack mainly to the best diggers from a ball-control perspective. Finally, there is understanding when you are in good position to go for a strong swing and when to just keep the ball in play. You can also add in good communication so that players know what to do with respect to these three factors.

Now, as a coach who wants to see the drill completed as quickly as possible, you could tell the players to only set to certain hitters. You can tell the hitters only to attack to certain defenders. That would certainly speed things up. But would there be any real learning benefit? What happens next time you do the drill with different combinations of players? Will you once more tell them exactly what to do? And the next time? Can you tell players exactly what to do in every game situation?

Yes, it can definitely be a challenge watching the team struggle with this drill. It’s tough to see them get frustrated if they have to keep starting over. We have to resist the urge to go in and “fix” things, though. Instead, we should guide them toward the right solutions – toward the thought processes we want to instill. Instead of telling them what’s wrong or what to do, we should be asking them so they can figure it out for themselves. That leads to better long-term retention and cross-over application in other situations.

Believe me, this can sometimes be a slow process. And there are times when you have to really do a lot of asking and guiding and hinting to get them thinking and acting the way you want. Once you get them there, though, you’ll find it worth the effort.

They might surprise you!

Your players – unless they are very new to the sport – might know more than you give them credit for, especially from their own perspectives. Let them solve things for themselves and you might be pleasantly surprised at the solutions they develop. If nothing else, they are likely to have more confidence in applying those solutions later.