An open letter to those who judge coaches

This post was motivated by a combination of personal experience, talks with fellow coaches, and posts and articles I’ve read over the years. When talking about those who judge coaches, I refer to everyone who, for one reason or another, makes assessments of a coach’s quality, fit, knowledge, capability, etc. That includes the likes of fellow coaches, athletic directors, college administrators, club presidents, parents, club directors, players, media, and fans.

Dear Coach Evaluator,

Regardless of whether you do formal coach evaluations for hiring/supervision or you make more informal evaluations, there are things you must consider to have any chance to make a reasonable judgement. This letter addresses them.

Priorities

First and foremost, do you know the coach’s priority? By that I mean what the coach’s superior told them to prioritize. You can only judge them fairly on that basis, nothing else.

Naturally, winning is often the basis for coach assessment, but in many cases that isn’t the priority. At the college level, for example, there are lots of programs where making sure the players have a good experience, stay out of trouble, and do well academically are the important considerations. In many other situations, fun and skill development are the biggest things.

If winning isn’t the priority, it’s unfair to judge someone poorly for losing, or highly for winning. Providing praise or criticism based on something other than their given priority at a minimum sends mixed messages. Often it leads them down a bad path.

The classic example is the coach too focused on winning. Of course, if their priority is to win, they should make decisions from that perspective and you should judge them on that basis. If it’s not, however, a focus on winning might lead them to sacrifice the real priority in the cause of competitiveness. It tends to create a short-term mentality, and loses sight of the long-term objectives.

So judge coaches on their given priorities, and give them feedback on that. If you have a hiring perspective, make sure you know clearly what a coach’s priorities were in their previous positions so you can make an assessment based on the right factors. And if you’re a coach’s supervisor, be totally honest with yourself and them. Make the priorities clear and stick to them. Don’t be the sort of supervisor who says one thing, then assesses based on something else.

Understanding of the position’s requirements

The second need for reasonable coach rating is knowing the job’s requirements. Frankly, a lot of non-coaches fall short here. Ask anyone who shifted from player to coach. They’ll tell you how little they realized went into coaching before they actually did it. And if you’ve never been in that environment at all, your understanding is even less.

There are multiple levels to this. I’ll use college coaching as an example. College coaches must recruit well, regardless if their priority is competitiveness or a happy, trouble-free squad. At the next level, effective recruitment has it’s own requirements – organization, communication, talent assessment, etc. And recruiting is just one of many demands. Fair assessment requires you to understand both levels. Alternatively, recognize where you lack understanding and don’t assess in that area.

There’s more. In a coaching staff the members have different responsibilities. Keeping with college recruiting, staff size makes a difference on who does what work. In a small staff, everyone does everything to varying degrees. Larger staffs specialize more. Assistants often lead the way. The head coach is still involved, but assistants do much of the actual work.

I mention this because I often see prior recruiting success as part of a head coach’s hiring criteria. If, however, you’re hiring for a staff where the assistants do most of the recruiting work, it’s a different skill set – more management of recruiters than actual recruiting.

Knowledge of these requirements is especially critical in the hiring and on-going assessment for a coach supervisor. That’s you athletic directors, club presidents, etc. If you were not a coach at the level you supervise, then you must learn what it takes to do it successfully. Even more so if you believe part of your role is to guide your coaches in their development.

Why don’t they do something?

Now we move on to evaluation during competition. By that I mean judging what a coach does or does not do when their team plays. Mostly, this comes to the fore when the team is losing. Coach evaluators – especially fans – want them to “do something”. There are two big problems with this.

First, what should they do? Do you want them to change something? That only makes sense if the coach reasonably believes two things. One is that team/player performance isn’t just a normal variation. The other is that the change would actually improve things. There’s no reason to believe that to be true if you sub in someone who’s on the bench because they’re an inferior player. Similarly, something like calling timeout may not be as effective as you think.

Second, the sort of thing you expect the coach to do could be counterproductive. Yelling and punishment fall into this category. Likely, any following performance improvement is probably reversion to the mean. That’s not just me saying it. That’s Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman saying so. Further, while you might see a real short-term impact, in the long run the influence of yelling and such will probably be negative. This is especially true when driven by emotion.

Unfortunately, media portrayals and stereotypes suggest coaches should regularly employ these sorts of interventions. Further, as a spectator you are helpless. Since you can’t influence things, you want the coach to do so. The combination can drives the “do something” mentality.

Winning and losing can be emotional, but avoid emotionally-driven coach assessments – in either direction. Instead, when it comes to the idea of the coach making changes – whether they should or should not – think about whether they represent a reasonable expectation of improved performance.

Demeanor

Related to coaching actions is coach demeanor and your expectations. The coach stereotype tends to be of animated individuals prowling the sideline. For some coaches this is fine. It suits their personality. Other coaches are more sedate. There are Hall of Fame coaches from both categories. You should not judge a coach based on your internal model of what a good coach acts like so long as they are positively engaged and focused.

Do you have knowledge of best practices?

Are you up to date on coaching best practices? How much do you know about motor learning and skill acquisition? Do you know the difference between blocked and random (a.k.a. open or adaptive) exercise and the implication for their use in a training context? Are you aware of the difference between Guided Discovery and Direct Instruction? Do you know the best feedback mechanisms?

When it comes to athlete contact hours – especially in team sports – for most coaches practice time is top of the list. Further, one of any coach’s most important jobs is helping their players – individually and collectively – get better and prepare for competition. This happens in practice.

What should that look like? If you want to base your assessment of a coach on how they run training sessions then you need a basis for it. That means understanding the underlying principles. And no, your own prior experience as a player doesn’t count. Chances are your coaches used methods that are dated by current standards, regardless of how you did or how you “turned out”.

You want a coach who uses modern methods for two reasons. First, they are more effective and efficient. Second, it indicates a coach who keeps themselves educated. That’s a coach motivated to be the best they can. That’s not enough by itself, of course, but it goes a long way.

What if you aren’t up on coaching best practices, though? Then it’s not appropriate for you to judge a coach based on what you think of their training sessions. And don’t base it on what the athletes say either. They likely have the same fundamental lack of understanding you have.

All the above aside, do be critical of a coach whose players are not engaged in practice. That’s a sign something is wrong.

Remember you don’t have the full picture

Do you know why experienced coaches avoid criticizing other coaches? It’s because they realize there’s a lot they don’t know about what goes into coach decision-making. Some of it can be worked out if you’re an insider, so to speak. You could perhaps see a player’s practice performance, or know of behavioral issues, or one of any number of other factors impacting a line-up decision. Similarly, maybe you’re privy to the scouting report and how that relates to strategy.

Even if that’s the case, though, coaches still make many decisions you can’t see. Don’t do what players often do and make assumptions. If you are evaluating a coach based on their decision-making, it’s only fair that you actually talk with them about it. Find out what they were thinking and why. Admittedly, this isn’t always easy to do as a parent or fan, but for sure it should be part of the supervisory process.

Just keep in mind there are good and bad times for these sorts of conversations. Immediately following competition is one of the bad times.

Be realistic about your situation

This big topic ties everything together. Know your situation and be realistic about your expectations. This is particularly true when it comes to the competitive environment. Generally speaking, the teams with the most resources perform the best. You need look no further than professional sports to see this. In leagues whether there is no salary cap you inevitably see those with the biggest budgets near the top and those with the smallest near the bottom.

Coaching might make some marginal differences, but even a great coach will struggle when they have inferior talent and/or resources. This is backed by research which finds that firing a coach for performance tends to have little impact on that team’s performance moving forward. Here’s one study.

So understand your competitive situation and be realistic about your coaching expectations.

Behavior

I’ve talked a lot up to now about how you might unfairly judge a coach. Let me flip things around for a minute, though. Here I want to talk about not judging a coach harshly enough. That’s when it comes to their behavior.

While you cannot observe all of a coach’s behavior, you can make at least some judgements based on what you do see. This is particularly so for negative behavior. Under no condition should abusive or unprofessional actions or attitudes be tolerated – regardless of the outcome, the target, or the coach’s perceived level of success. It’s that simple.

And beware of categorizing abusive behavior as a coach simply “being tough”. Yes, it is the coach’s responsibility to make things challenging for the athletes. There’s no reason this needs to include yelling and punishment for failure, though, or anything that puts the athletes’ health and well-being at risk. A coach who does that demonstrates a lacking in terms of the tools to properly motivate and develop their athletes. Such behavior also suggests they lack the empathy required for the position.

Final thoughts

There’s a lot to this “open letter”, I know. These are important considerations, though. We all want coaches judged and assessed fairly. That means both positively and negatively. Judging a coach harshly for something they shouldn’t be rated on is just as bad as judging them well on the same basis. If you lack the knowledge and/or situational understanding to assess some aspect of a coach’s performance, then don’t. Either educate yourself or stick to what you know (avoiding invalid assumptions). It’s the only fair way to go, and it will probably save considerable stress in the process.

Thanks for your attention. I’d love to get your thoughts. Feel free to share them via comment below.

Deciding on a starting setter

I came across the following question in a coaching group on the subject of picking the team’s starting setter.

How do you rank/rate setters when trying to decide a starter? Seems like a lot of what they do is based on what others do on the court. We have four above average setters, but no great standout, so basing some numbers on who’s the best would be great.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to speak in terms of picking a single starting setter. The ideas I present, though, apply to picking starters in a multiple setter system (4-2, 6-2, etc.).

Also, I’m assuming we’re talking about a competitive situation where you want to put the best team on the court. The alternative is a more developmental situation where you’re not so concerned about winning and losing. In that case other considerations dominate.

I’m going to exclude from this discussion non-playing aspects. That is stuff like attitude, effort, etc. At least in so much as they are not reflected in on-court performance. For example, you could have a setter who is a better performer than others, but whose attitude is not something you want to reward with playing time.

The first thing I would say is that you want to do all of your evaluations in game play situations. By that I mean I would not consider drill performance, as setters often don’t have to perform the fullness of their positional requirements. You want to evaluate the complete package. There are a lot of things setters have to do. You can’t pick a starter based on only looking at one or two of them.

By the way, when I say “game play” there are levels to it. You will get the best, most comprehensive view of a setter’s abilities in a 6 v 6 situation since that is what they are in come match day. However, you can use small-sided games to good effect as well. You just need to understand the limitations any given game has with respect to the setter position.

Who’s the winner?

I believe it was in Insights that Mike Hebert talked about the different personality roles players can take within a team. I don’t recall all of them, but I remember Winner being one of them. Mike made the observation that high performing teams have setters who are Winners.

In American Football the quarterback is often judged on the basis of winning and losing. The setting position in volleyball has a lot of parallels to quarterback, and as such winning is one of the ways we can evaluate them. A good setter does the things they need to do to help their team win.

With that in mind, one way to help determine the starting setter is to see who wins most often. This was something we did at Midwestern State in the 2017 season. We kept track of the winners of games for all positions, though in our analysis it was most influential on the setter evaluations. We had a senior who started the year before going up against a sophomore who had some physical and other advantages in her favor. It was the senior, though, who won far more often in the games we played the first couple weeks of practice. That strongly favored her for the starting job.

I should note, we had a conversation with the sophomore about things. In it we specifically mentioned the differential in winning. It was something she took to heart, and we noticed a rapid improvement from that point on. So you can not only use these sorts of evaluations to make a starting choice, but also direct the development of the non-starter(s).

Who runs the best offense?

Another good way to evaluate your setters with with offensive statistics. To put it simply, what is the team hitting percentage – or whatever your preferred metric – for each setter? This is obviously a bit more labor intensive to track than wins, but is can provide a number of useful insights. That’s above and beyond simply figuring out which setter puts up the best numbers.

For example, if you track the hitting stats for each setter you can drill down on things. You might find one setter runs the middles better, while the other is stronger when setting the pins. Aside from giving you developmental areas of focus for each, that sort of information could feed into decisions with respect to your opposition. Maybe you play a team that struggles in the middle, so you want to really feature that in your offense when playing them. This could see you favor the setter who is better with the middles even if overall the other setter is stronger.

Along a similar offensive line of thinking, you could also you some kind of set rating system. It’s a concept similar to ones used for serving and passing. I haven’t come across any that are commonly used, because rating a set is quite complex. Here’s one idea, though.

Non-offensive considerations

As noted above, setters have several other things to do aside from running the offense. They have to play defense, serve, block (some at least), and communicate with their teammates on the court in the right way. If they are doing these things well it will probably reflect in how often they win the games you put them in.

Where things get interesting is when you have a situation where a setter is good in the offensive category, but not great in the other areas – or vice versa. In this case it’s possible your own biases could lead you to a decision. For example, I worked with a coach with a strong defensive focus. She always favored the stronger defensive player if there wasn’t some other really strong factor in play. This is why I like looking at winning. It’s pretty objective.

And if you look at offensive and non-offensive factors alongside the winning aspect you can gain a lot of useful insights. On the one hand, you might be able to see why a setter struggles to win. On the other hand, you could see how a winning setter might get even better.

Video analysis

It’s sometimes not practical to collect the kind of stats we’d like in practice. This is particularly true if you coach by yourself. What almost all of us can do, though, is record things on video. That’s gives you a chance to go back and stat things, for one. But even if you can’t do that, you can use the video to see which setter does the things you want to see them doing most often.

Know what’s important

A big factor in all of this is knowing what’s important. There are many things you can look at when evaluating setters. They simply don’t weight equally when it comes to which setter will do the best job for your team, however. Most of us would put running a good offense at or near the top of the list, but what’s next? And what’s after that? Having a tiebreak system is important. You might have some ideas, but make sure they are based on observation and evidence, not just impressions. Different teams and levels of play have different considerations in this regard.

So when comparing setters make sure the games you put them in put the decision factors strongly in focus. And make the situations the setters are in as comparable as possible. It would not be fair to base your starter decision, for example, on stats collected when one setter was playing with a strong team around her and the other had a weak team. You need to balance that out.

Some things we want our player doing on the court

There’s an article on the USA Volleyball website that shares “10 Things You Should Do on the Court” as indicated by some top coaches. The coaches contributing the 10 include the likes of Russ Rose, Hugh McCutcheon, and John Speraw. Here are the bullets.

  1. Outside hitters: Focus on the first contact before thinking about the third contact.
  2. Be disciplined with your block and avoid reaching out for the ball or drifting.
  3. Set attackers who are asking for the ball.
  4. When attacking, adjust your approach to the set.
  5. Serve it in after 20, after timeouts, and when your opponent or teammate has just missed.
  6. In beach, keep talking to your partner.
  7. Setters: Take tight passes and keep your hitters off the net.
  8. Understand that you’re always involved in the play.
  9. Setters: Error high rather than low when setting the middle attacker.
  10. Be ready to play.

Go to the article to see what the coaches say about each point. Meanwhile, I’ll share a few thoughts of my own. I think a couple deserve specific comment.

For #3, while I understand the idea, I think our coaching objective is #8. We want our players always ready for the next phase of play. Ask players from my teams and they will tell you that I harp on the idea of “What’s your job right now?” If a player is one of the attacking options they should be ready. Asking for the ball shouldn’t be necessary. That said, I do understand the value of it from the perspective of inexperienced players.

With respect to #5, I am definitely a coach who thinks in terms of momentum with respect to serving.To that end, I don’t like seeing missed serves in a row. I do understand, though, that at times you have to stay aggressive. That’s why I’m a little hesitant about saying no misses after 20. I do know some top coaches have this philosophy. Mike Lingenfelter talked about something along these lines in the Volleyball Coaching Wizards – Wizard Wisdom book.

I think #6 doesn’t just apply to beach. Indoor players should communicate constantly as well. This isn’t even mainly about calling the ball, though. There’s a lot more to the game than that.

I definitely agree with #9. Setters have a major tendency to under-set their middles.

What do you think about this list? Are these things you try to teach your players? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Your idea of professional may not fit with reality

I saw the following in a coaching group.

Hey coaches, I am coaching my first professional team here in Denmark. So be ready for questions and tactic strategies.

What’s your reaction to that?

Was it something along the lines of, “You’re going to coach a professional team! Shouldn’t you already know about tactics and stuff?”

I should note that top level volleyball in Denmark is really what you’d call semi-professional. By that I mean you don’t have a full team of players who make their primary living from playing volleyball. There might be a few who do, but there are for sure others who really don’t make much at all. Some could be students who play on the side.

It’s similar to the situation I was in when coaching at Svedala. My team had three full-time pros. All the rest either had regular jobs or were in school. I actually coached against a number of Danish teams while I was in Sweden.

Additionally, I believe this new coach is actually in a player/coach situation. That means they haven’t been a dedicated coach before, seemingly. It’s something you sometimes see in volleyball – and other sports. When I coached at Brown, one of the other assistants was a former USA National Team player who played pro ball in Italy. For part of that time she was player/coach. Jefferson Williams, who’s interview is in the first Volleyball Coaching Wizards book, also was a long-time player/coach.

My point in all this is it’s a bit unfair to jump on the coach quoted above because we don’t really understand what “professional” means in their context. It certainly doesn’t mean what most Americans would think of as professional. And it’s not the same context as what it’d be in a strong volleyball country like Italy or Russia.

So be aware of the context before reacting in a situation like this.

The cultural risks in taking over a new program late

An article on LinkedIn talks about what the author describes as “Second Year Syndrome”. It’s got a clear objective to get consulting business, but nevertheless brings up interesting points. Specifically, it looks at something that can happen when a new coaching staff takes over a team right before the season. The focus is on when the prior staff is fired. I think, though, there are parallels for a voluntary departure.

The reason the author focuses on the “fired” situation is culture. Here’s what she says.

“When a coach is hired close to the start of their season they do not have the time they need to develop the relationships necessary to accurately assess the team culture.”

This is certainly true. I’ve been in this situation a couple of times. Not following a fired head coach, but nevertheless taking over a team with no clear sense of the culture. That’s how it was my first year at Exeter. The same was true at Svedala.

The first season

I previously shared some thoughts on working with a new team from a session of the 2013 AVCA Convention. Culture did not specifically come up by name, but developing trust was. I think, whatever the situation, that’s key. No matter the culture you take over (and the assumption is when following a fired staff that it’s bad), trust is critical.

The challenge when taking over a team late like that is you tend to have a lot on your plate. You’re trying to learn all the in’s and out’s of the new program. You’re trying to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Chances are you don’t have a lot of time before competitive matches start, so you’ve got that to worry about as well. It’s very easy to forget the culture stuff. The article points out that this cannot be the case.

Here’s the thing, though. As the culture chapter from Volleyball Coaching Wizards – Wizard Wisdom indicates, culture is in everything you do. That includes what you do on the court in practice. It’s all about having the proper awareness of the work you do.

Heading into the second year

The idea in the article of the “Second Year Syndrome” concept is what happens if you don’t get a good handle on the team culture in the first year. Basically, the author believes the opportunity might be gone. She says outside help is probably the only way out in that case. But then she’s a coaching consultant, so of course she says that.

Will some outside help work? It might. Problem is actually getting it. Not always easy to find someone with the availability to spend the time and the observational skills to provide meaningful insights.

So what if you don’t have an outside perspective?

Not much choice. You just have to do the work. Keep getting to know the players and developing trust. Get rid of the players who won’t go along with the new program. Continue ingraining the culture you want in everything you do. Read the chapter from the Wizards book I mentioned above. It will for sure give you something to think about.

Master one defense, or develop familiarity with multiple

I came across the following coaching question.

What do you think is better when it comes to defense: running one defense and becoming great at, almost perfecting the one defense or running two or three defenses to be able to adjust to opponent tendencies but you’re never really perfecting one?

I get the idea behind this question, but I think it has built in some limited thinking.

Let me start by saying it is often beneficial to have defensive flexibility – at least when you get toward higher levels of play. You want to be able to adapt to the capabilities and tendencies of the opposition. To my mind, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to think in terms of multiple defensive systems.

I’ll explain.

One system, multiple adjustments

First, we absolutely want to start with the defensive system which is optimal for the majority of what we face. Call it “perimeter” or “rotational” or “middle up” or whatever. It’s the thing we have to spend most of our time developing and refining.

Here’s the important thing, though, to my mind. There is a strong tendency in coaches to teach defensive systems, meaning positioning, in a robotic fashion. They tell players where they should stand. I had a player when I coached in Sweden who HATED when players asked where they should stand on defense, and I agree. What coaches should be giving players is their areas of responsibility.

You might be thinking that’s the same thing, but it’s not. This is where reading comes in to play. Defenders can’t just go to a spot and hope the ball is hit right to them. To truly have an effective defense, each player must be able to use their on-going analysis of the developing play to determine the most likely sort of attack they will see within their area of responsibility. At the same time, players must have a strong understanding of seam responsibility and how it changes as they shift relative positions on the court.

Developing this reading ability and seam awareness actually means the players can essentially play different types of defenses without formalizing movement patterns. For example, a middle back who reads well can play a standard perimeter defense type of position (deep in 6), they could play more middle-middle (usually about 3m in from the end line), or they could even play off the back of the court depending on their read of the block, set location, hitter approach, etc.

Here’s another example. In many perimeter systems the defender in 1 releases up if they read tip. In essence, they are doing what they would do in a rotational defense where they’d move up behind the block. Often in this case the middle back person is told to cover the deep line when the right back moves up for tip defense. That means you have them playing a defacto rotational system.

My point in all this is that as coaches we don’t necessarily need to thinking of defensive flexibility as the ability to run multiple defined system. We can, instead, think of just one system with adjustments. It simplifies things for the players too.

Multiple systems

Now, there might be times when you want to run an entirely different system. My guess is this will be very infrequent, though. For example, when I coached at Brown our main defense was perimeter. Against Yale, though, we played a kind of rotational defense. The only time we ever worked on the rotational defense was before playing Yale. Other than that, we only trained perimeter.

How can you get away with that? Simple. If reading and seam responsibility are well developed, then shifting defensive responsibilities is not that difficult. The hardest part of it all is making sure the players remember which system they’re playing. That’s going to happen no matter how many different ones you train.

Service errors vs. service points

volleyball serve

I previous wrote the post Looking at Serving Risk and Reward. In it I broke down the risk/reward prospects of serving aggressively by way of a formula. Mark Lebedew and his research partner Ben Raymond posted an analysis of 2018 Volleyball Nations League serving. It basically takes that idea and applies it to real world statistics. There are a number of different graphs which are worth looking at showing the trade-off between service errors and point scoring % (referred to as breakpoint %).

For the most part, when you look at the graphs you see a line with a hump. Point scoring percentages are lower when service errors are lowest. They then rise as errors increase, but only up to a certain point. After that the extra errors negatively impact point scoring. In other words, there’s a kind of sweat spot where the risk and reward of serving aggressiveness balance to give the best point scoring percentage.

I can speak to this idea from personal experience. One season when I coached at Brown there was a point when I noticed our serving effectiveness had dropped off. In my analysis I realized we were only on 1-2 errors per set. We were at our best when it was 3-4, so I encouraged our servers to get more aggressive.

Here’s a basic example from the report.

In the report you’ll see different curve samples based on match data. In fact, no two teams had the same result. For example, the USA graph shows they were best with a notably higher error rate than we see for any of the other teams – at least for that particular match.

It’s worth noting that in one case there was no hump in the plot. That was from when France played Korea. The line for France in that match was entirely downward sloping from left to right. That means added service aggression was actually counterproductive. They were better off just keeping the ball in play.

This speaks to what I wrote in the Play conservatively to win, redux post, as well as to a story Iradge Ahrabi-Fard told in his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview. There are certain situations or opponents where missing serves is to be avoided.

It’s definitely worth evaluating your own team(s) from this perspective.

Anja’s story

In June 2018 I got a notice from Facebook that it was the 25th birthday of one of the players I coached at Exeter – a young woman named Anja. A Croatian, Anja was one of the approximately two dozen non-English players I coached during my time in England. In 2012-13, my first year there, she was one of the two club co-captains. In 2013-14 she was part of the team that reached the UK university national semifinals in Edinburgh.

Anja was easily the tallest player in the squad. Her jump was practically non-existent, though. It was something of a running joke, in fact. Anja also had a cannon for an arm, and terrified her pepper partners. It wasn’t the power, though. It was the fact that she hit the ball with no spin. You couldn’t be sure quite where it was going. Even really experienced players were scared to pepper with Anja. 🙂

My first year at Exeter Anja was our third string middle, and she seemed quite happy with that. I got the impression from the few times she did play that she would have been fine staying on the bench. Despite her size and power, she was inexperienced – and not particularly skilled either.

The Anja who returned for the start of the 2013-14 season was a different player. She’d clearly worked out over the Summer, and was eager for the team to do great things that year. There was still a tentativeness to her play at the beginning, though, and she still had much to learn. As a result, she was one of 3-4 players all competing for the second starting middle spot.

Two decisions made all the difference

Something that really helped Anja that year was a club decision from the prior Spring. The newly elected club captains and I decided to add second teams to both the men’s and women’s side of things. While the first teams competed in Division 1, the second teams would play in Division 2.

Now, I should clarify something about when I say “teams”. You see, we trained everyone together. There was no first-team-only or second-team-only type of practices. We had one squad of I think 14 players that we split as needed for matches.

A second decision from the Spring was to enter the team in the Southwest Regional league. The year before they played in the Exeter city league, but that was co-ed on a men’s net and low quality play. It was a joke in terms of helping the players get better. In the Southwest league we got I think 14 matches on a proper women’s net. The opposition was of mixed quality, but it was good experience.

Those Division 2 and Regional matches were massive for the team overall, and certain player specifically. Instead of a select few getting the vast majority of the playing time, the whole squad got to play quite a bit.

Impact on Anja

Playing time is usually not a switch that makes a player better. They generally have to cycle between training and playing for the lessons to get learned and for them to reach a kind of tipping point in their development.

During the first half of our season in 2013-14, despite the playing time, Anja made all the mistakes you’d expect of an inexperienced middle. She took balls that weren’t hers and let other go that were. Her movements sometimes caused problems on the court. I remember her teammates’ frustration with her during the Student Cup qualification tournament in November. At that time Anja was probably the #5 middle in the rankings.

Up to that point, Anja had played in several matches as a starter – mainly in the Regional league. While her skill development still left a lot to be desired, one critical element had changed. Anja was now a confident player on the court. Gone was the young woman who played only reluctantly the year before. This made a massive difference in her development. It gave her much needed focus.

Anja becomes a starter

At the end of the first term the team held its annual holiday dinner. During the event there were some awards. One of those was Most Improved.

No. That didn’t go to Anja. It went to one of the players new to the team who, like Anja, was a major beneficiary of the added competition and playing time. She was very inexperienced and made really big gains. If I remember correctly, though, when we held the year-end banquet in March it was Anja who got the award.

I can’t remember at this point when Anja finally took hold of the second Middle starting spot for good. I do know she had it totally locked in before we went to Edinburgh for Final 8s in March. Between the Student Cup in November and then Anja got to play a bunch more matches. She smoothed out those rough patches that caused problems and became a very consistent performer. She wasn’t a star, but you knew what you were going to get.

The cherry on top

And to top Anja’s season off, we did the completely unexpected. The Exeter Women reached the national semifinal. Honestly, our goal was really just to put in a respectable performance at Final 8s, since it was the first time in anyone’s memory that the women’s team had gone that far (if ever). So when we accomplished what we did it left us all floating on a cloud. And Anja started all four of the matches we played.

She’d gone from near the bottom of the depth charts to starting on a team that accomplished something historic.

Going out on top

Anja graduated from Exeter that year. She went on to do grad school in London. I asked her at the time if she was going to keep playing, but she said she wasn’t. Her feeling was that she couldn’t possibly match the 2013-14 season’s experience. She’d prefer to let that be her final volleyball memory.

When Facebook told me it was Anja’s 25th birthday I sent her a message joking that it was all downhill from there. She replied, “It was all downhill from Edinburgh!

The moral

It was, of course, a young person saying that. Those of us who’ve got a few more years behind us know there are a lot of significant events in our lives after 25 – even if we do joke that that’s when we peaked. 🙂

Still, there’s no doubt that whole experience was a meaningful one for Anja. It’s something she probably will remember for a long time, and I’m willing to bet some of the things she learned along the way will serve her for years to come. This is something we coaches need to be cognizant of in our work.

There’s a good chance you mainly work with young people. That means you are helping to create experiences and facilitate lessons learned that could influence their lives for years to come – positively or negatively. You are helping to shape the person they will be.

Think about that – the trust you’ve been given. Be responsible for it. Make sure you are doing everything you can to further your players’ development in a positive, meaningful fashion.

It’s not about you.

What do you do the first day of practice?

Came across the following question from a coach taking over a new team.

First day of practice. What do you do? Start fast and set the tone for practice expectations, go over team rules, paperwork requirements?

Let me take this in pieces.

Don’t waste gym time

Most of us only have a limited amount of court time with our teams, for one reason or another. I would not waste any of that on paperwork, team meetings, or anything that doesn’t involve a volleyball. I even want my warm-ups to be a productive from a volleyball perspective as possible. Do the administrative and other non-volleyball stuff outside of gym time.

Set the tone?

The author of the question above mentions starting fast and setting the tone for expectations. While I do think establishing expectations from the outset is important, that doesn’t have to come from a fast start. In fact, a fast start might not even be advisable. Depends on your situation. To reduce the risk of injury you don’t want players going from little in the way of high intensity work, straight into a heavy load. Better to build into it.

Straight at it or build it up?

Depending on your situation, you could either go right into working on team things the first practice or take a more measured approach. If you have a lot of returners and/or only have a short amount of time before your first match, jumping right in is probably the way you want to go. In that case, you’ll think about running a fairly standard practice based on your key priorities.

If, however, you need to do a bit more in the way of assessment you’ll probably want to take a different approach. Same thing if you are integrating a bunch of new players into the team. This was the approach I took to my first practice session coaching in Sweden. I used that session to get my first real look at the players and to start them getting to know each other as players.

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