I have written on the subject of errors from a few perspectives (see here, here, and here as examples). It was suggested to me, though, that it’s worth taking the time to speak to the different types of errors. That’s the purposes of this post.
The errors we tend to think about most are mechanical or technical. They are simple failures of execution. It could be a question of timing. Perhaps they struck the ball improperly. Regardless of how the error happens, it’s about trying to do some skill and failing. This doesn’t always lead to a lost point, however. For example, missing your service target is an error, even if you put the ball in play.
Tactical is the decision-making that leads to technical. It’s the hitter deciding whether to hit line or cross, or perhaps whether to hit the ball at all based on the set. It’s the setter deciding which hitter to set, and the passer choosing between taking the ball with their hands or their platform. Basically, it’s the player picking the solution to the situation presented. The wrong choice doesn’t automatically mean failure, but it does lower the chances of success.
Before one can decide on a solution or execute a skill one must perceive what’s happening. We can think of it in two ways. The first relates to skill execution. It’s judging the flight of the ball coming our way, be it a serve or attack when considering 1st contact (including a block or attack of an overpass), a pass or dig leading to 2nd contact, or a set for us to play over the net (preferably via attack). Errors here result in poor solution selection and/or mistakes in execution. The other way is what’s commonly referred to as reading. This is taking in things like the movement of players and the quality of ball contacts to anticipate what’s to come. These errors tend to result in failures of positioning and readiness.
Strategic errors operate on a higher level. They tend to drive tactical decision-making. For example, if the strategy is for your best attacker to hit against the other team’s smallest blocker, then the plays the Setter calls (Tactical Decision #1) and the choice they make who to set in a given situation (Tactical Decision #2) are influenced (or at least should be) by that strategy. But what if that match-up isn’t actually the best way to go? Then you have a strategic level error. These can happen when people make assumptions and don’t actually work things through to see if it really makes sense in the specific situation.
We tend to think of behavior as a pattern. In a given moment, however, how one behaves can certainly be a clear error. Some of them are obvious. A player gets carded or ejected for bad behavior. They yell at a teammate for making a mistake. They sulk after they get blocked. Others aren’t quite so glaring, but still fall into this category. Lack of readiness, in its many forms (don’t cover, no transition, etc.), is a behavioral error. Forgetting to do a pre-serve routine is a behavioral error.
Diagnosis and Treatment
A big part of our job as coaches is to identify the points of failure our players and teams experience. That way we can address them effectively. For example, fixing tactical elements won’t help much if we have the strategy wrong. This goes hand-in-hand with understanding the real source of mistakes in the game context.
Breaking down the categories of errors also shows how we have to think of them in our training. Execution necessarily follows from decision-making, oftentimes at an unconscious level. And both those follow from perception. Mental states influence decision-making. It’s all connected. That means we have to train it all.
And we can’t treat all errors the same.
As I wrote in Climbing Mistake Mountain, we actually want to see lots of mechanical/technical errors in the developmental phase. If we don’t, then the players aren’t challenging themselves enough (see also What percentage of reps should be good?). That means we have to avoid punishing these kinds of errors, especially inadvertently. Otherwise, fear of failure supplants the risk-taking mentality we need. That’s a behavioral error for the player(s) of our own making.
And even with the other types of errors, we have to look to causality. Does the player judge the ball properly and can they read the play? Is it a lack of information or understanding? Are the right mental processes followed? Is there self-awareness? Can we technically execute the tactical element we’re after? Is there an underlying cause for a behavioral issue? It’s very easy to default to yelling and/or punishment, but is that actually going to address the root cause?
And addressing the root cause is the whole point.
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