I once came across the following question from a fellow volleyball coach.

What do you do to make sure your players don’t become dependent on you for feedback in matches?

This sort of thing is a significant touch point for me. I hate seeing athletes turn to their coach(es) after each play during competition. The captain of my women’s team at Exeter back in 2013-14 had this habit. She once specifically talked about it with me. It was presumably something that developed as a young athlete. By the time she played for me she wasn’t actually looking over expecting feedback. It was just an automatic, likely mostly unconscious thing.

Gives you an idea of the sort of long-term impact a coach can have, doesn’t it?

I have written before about how I strongly favor an approach which encourages the players to be responsible for their own decisions, adjustments, etc. (see Calling plays from the bench). I’ve also written about the value of helping players reach the point where they can self-coach. Both of these are areas where we can focus on making our athletes more self-reliant.

At it’s core, encouraging players to make their own decisions and become their own coaches is the need for us to be able to stand back and let the players learn lessons for themselves. I know as teachers we all want to “fix” the mistakes we see being made. Keeping players from being reliant upon us, though, means resisting the urge to provide feedback on each and every rep. My own personal approach is to not say anything until I see a string of the same error being made. Even then, I want to take a more Socratic approach – asking the athlete to tell me what the problem is rather than just telling them – to get them thinking about it in their own way.

I think you can probably get away with praising a good execution more quickly (see this post), especially when working on something new. That tends to reinforce what you’re after. Just don’t go overboard and praise every single repetition.

You should probably also avoid a pattern I apparently fell into. Back when I was coaching at Brown I apparently had the players convinced I was only ever watching them when they made a mistake! While the players were joking about it, and not really taking it seriously, it made me realize I probably wasn’t mixing in enough praise. Lesson learned.

The other thing that factors in to the “look at the coach after the play” response is if they think you will yank them for making a mistake. That’s an athlete playing in fear, which you definitely don’t want.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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