We’re losing, so let’s change something

Inevitably, when a team is losing there is a call to make changes. That could be in the context of a season or of a match. In this Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast episode, among other places, Mark Lebedew and I discuss the pressure coaches feel to “do something” when things aren’t going well. So we take timeouts, we make substitutions, we spin the rotation, etc.

Do those things really help, though? Mark’s and other’s research on timeouts suggests maybe not in that case at least.

Regardless, there is always a push to do something different if things are not going well. You could relate it back to the old quote about doing the same thing expecting a different result being the definition of insanity.

There are a few different problems with this mindset, though.

Reversion to the mean

First of all, let’s talk about something statistical. That’s the concept of reversion (or regression) to the mean. Basically, the broad idea is that you are going to see periods of performance that is below average, just as you will see ones above average. Invariably, when outlier performances are seen, the odds suggest something much closer to “normal” will follow.

In the context of this particular discussion, if a player had recently done much worse than they normally do (their average), then it is likely the future performance will show an improvement. That doesn’t mean they’ll do much better than average. They might, but the odds are they will perform somewhere close to how they historically perform. If so, that will look like an improvement compared to their most recent play.

Think about this with respect to a coach yelling at a player following a bad performance. Does the yelling really improve performance? Or is it simply the case of the player reverting back to their normal better level of play? Odds are it’s the latter.

The same is true of making a change because things are going poorly. If the team is performing below its usual level, any improvement seen after a change (timeout, substitution, etc.) may simply be mean reversion at work.

That brings up an important question.

What’s the causality?

Is there something identifiable that is causing the team to lose? Sometimes there is. Your outside hitter got blocked four times in a row and now has no confidence. Your libero seems to have completely forgotten how to pass the ball. The setter keeps making terrible decisions on where to set. Your blocking scheme isn’t taking away the right parts of the court. The opposition is passing your serves perfectly a high percentage of the time.

These are concrete things you can potentially address by making changes. They could include substitutions, a shift to a different scheme, changing service targets, etc.

The point is, if you can pin point the specific problem, then certainly change makes sense. If there is no one cause, though, what’s the point of change?

For example, your team gives up 5 points in a row. The first is a missed serve by your OPP. The second is a shanked pass by the libero. The third is a double contact call on your setter. The fourth is a hitting error by your OH. The fifth is a net violation by your MB.

Is there one cause you can address by making a change? Seems unlikely. And you’re not going to sub out the 5 players who made the errors, are you?

What does the change address?

The point of all this is two-fold. First, there needs to be something specific and identifiable you see in need of correction to justify making a change. Second, you need to have a reasonable expectation that the change you make will result in an improvement.

Let’s use a player substitution as an example.

Suzy makes several hitting errors. Do you sub her out and put Jane in?

Presumably, Suzy is the better player since she’s the starter. If you see something in Suzy that suggests the errors have an underlying cause (e.g. she is not exhibiting her normal on-court personality and/or movement), then you have a case for swapping players. Alternatively, if she is facing the sort of block that gives her trouble and Jane tends to deal with that situation better, there’s a reasonable case for a sub.

If, however, Suzy looks like she’s playing how she normally does, and there isn’t something in the match-up working against her, you don’t have cause for change. Think about it. Odds are Suzy will play in the future close to her normal level. Similarly, the odds are that Jane will also play close to her normal level. Since Suzy’s normal level is higher than Jane’s, chances are she will be the better performer.

The bottom line

Change for change’s sake is foolish and short-sighted. If you put in a less skilled player or adopt a strategy with lower odds for success simply because you feel like you need to change something, chances are you’re just going to make things worse.

If you truly want to help your team do better, look for the cause. It won’t always be obvious. You may have to filter through layers to find it. Pinpointing causalities is one of those coaching skills that develops with time and experience.

If you can figure out what’s amiss, then by all means address it. If you can’t, then any change you make is basically rolling the dice with the odds tilted against you.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman

John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women’s team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women’s professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women’s Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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