Archive for Volleyball Coach Development

Learning some coaching lessons

A while back I came across a post on the Rivers of Thinking blog. It is about coaching mistakes and the need for reflection. In this case, they come from soccer. I think the ideas are pretty universal in coaching, however.

1) Be aware of how you communicate.

In the post, the author shares a situation where he felt quite pleased about after a training session. He thought it went very well. He was stunned to find out afterwards from one of the kids that his language choice was received negatively.
Not long ago I wrote a post on the subject of unconscious communication, which relates to this from a mainly non-verbal perspective. And of course there’s always the yelling issue. In this particular case, though, the issue was sarcasm.

Being very careful with sarcasm is a lesson I myself learned along the way. It’s something that you need to be cautious about using, especially with younger athletes. In fact, you should probably avoid it all together in youth sports. They will pick up on the tone, which comes off as negative rather than humorous.

2) Challenge the source of the coaching style you develop

In the blog post the author talks about finding himself copying the coaching style of an older coach with whom he was working. He didn’t realize it at the time, and only figured it out later in hindsight. It’s a variation on the “This is how I learned” trap.

Now, if you have an awesome coach at a roll model then copying them might not be the worst thing in the world. Even in that case, though, you will need to do things your own way, not just be a mimic. Ideally, you’d like to be a composite of all the good characteristics you’ve seen in other coaches.

3) You can’t always control what your athletes learn

Have you ever worked on something specific in practice and at the end found out the players learned something unplanned and unexpected? That is the situation the author describes in his post. He was working on offense, but one of his players learned a lesson about defense.

The lesson here is that players are individuals. They bring their own perspective and context to things. That means they aren’t always going to see things the same way as you do. As a result, they won’t always follow along the learning path you’ve devised for them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Vital Heynen talks about just this sort of thing in the following excerpt from his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview.

4) Remembering to reflect real game situations

This piece of advice has to do with the rules of practice games and drills allowing players to do things that would be the right decision in a match situation. The author uses the example of a rule he used one day that forced him to whistle a play dead even though the player made a good decision – one you’d want to see in a real game.

This is something that comes up when you have the players operating in a constrained way. It came up at times when I was coaching at Svedala. We used a lot of small-court play. Sometimes that lead to really good attacks – particularly quick middle hits – going out when they would have been great in a real match.

And sometimes players find a solution to the problem you’ve posed them that isn’t exactly what you were after.

It’s a balancing act. You have to find that line where you have the players working on the development needs you are focused on without forcing them into an unnatural situation.

5) Match day is about the players, not you

The final idea of the blog post is that coaches need to overcome the desire to control play and the feeling that their ego is tied up in the result. The point made is that match time is for the players to have fun with their teammates, work hard, and maybe learn some stuff along the way – especially when talking about younger athletes.

The idea of letting the players get on with it and not trying to control things as a coach is in part the subject of my post on the desirability of play-calling from the bench. It goes beyond that, though, to address sideline demeanor and emotional reaction to results.

These, of course, are just a small sample of the lessons we coaches can and should learn along the way. What lessons have you learned? Share you story!

If you think you’re a great coach, you’re probably a poor one

People Who Think They’re Great Coaches Often Aren’t. That’s the title of a recent article from the Harvard Business Review. Got you thinking about whether you’re a good coach? 🙂

The scenario at the very beginning of the article I found really funny.

Basically, a person describes themselves a pretty good coach. When asked why, the response is they “…attended a coaching course and learned many of the techniques of good coaching.”

This story reminds me of a very early Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview I conducted. In it, Portuguese coach Paolo Cunha talked about people thinking they were coaches just because they’d done a course or gotten a certification as we discussed issues with coaching education.

Getting to the main point of the article, researchers did a test. They had people assess their own skills. Then they had others assess them. About a quarter of the folks involved overrated themselves. Not only were they not as good as they thought, but they actually ended up in the bottom third based on the external assessments. This is pretty classic overconfidence, which is something l looked at a lot while doing my PhD.

To summarize the findings, “…if you think you’re a good coach but you actually aren’t, this data suggests you may be a good deal worse than you imagined.”

The article continues on, suggesting…

“Bursting the bubble of your illusion of superiority could be highly advantageous to your continued development as a leader. In fact, this is the best reason to find a way to obtain honest feedback about your coaching skills.”

So what are the problem areas? The article provides a list I encourage you to read. Not surprisingly, communication and working with others rank high. Integrity is in there as well.

Interestingly, the people who underrated their own abilities scored above average in their assessed ability (57% percentile). What do you make of that?

I think it speaks to an attitude of continuous development. Coaches who do not think they are great are more likely to keep learning. They look at their weaknesses and seek to improve upon them. Sounds like a good mindset to me!

Being an emotionally intelligent coach

Apparently, being on vacation gives Mark from At Home on the Court time to find all kinds of interesting stuff, like the one I spoke about in a prior post. Here’s another one he came across on the subject of emotional intelligence, this time from the New York Times.

Basically, we’re talking here about four primary areas of focus: self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and relationship skills. Let me take on each individually.

Self-Awareness

This is about understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. In a team context – being as a player or as a member of a coaching staff – that factors in to knowing how to work with others to maximize collective effectiveness.

Also in this category is having a good emotional insight. In other words, you understand your feelings and know what can trigger them – anger being a prime example.

Self-Management

This includes resilience, emotional balance, and self-motivation. A lot of this has to do with handling adversity and overcoming setbacks. These are things we hope to see (or develop) in our players. We must be good models for them. Emotional balance in particular speaks to not allowing negative outcomes to cause negative emotional reactions – like yelling at your team for losing a match.

Empathy

Here the focus is on being a good listener and being able to view things from other people’s perspectives. Part of this relates to being able to deal with people as they are, which was the topic of Episode 18 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. Another part is being able to read someone’s feelings for more effective communication. A third is taking in what others are saying and not trying to make things about you or your views.

Relationships Skills

This covers two main concepts. One is being able to be persuasive and clear in your communications. Legendary coach Julio Velsasco has described coaching as selling. You are trying to sell the players on what you want them to do and where you want them to go. In order to do that, you need to communicate with them clearing and persuasively.

The other primary concept in this area is being able to work with others. In this instance, however, the focus is on how people feel around you. Are they relaxed? If so, it’s more likely you’ll be able to work effectively with them.

How’s your emotional intelligence?

I know mine has gotten much better over the years. Could still use some work in places, though.

 

Why coaching education fails

Volleyball Coach

Mark from At Home on the Court a while back flagged a really interesting article which criticizes common practices in coaching education and development. In particular, it lists the “ten really dumb things we do and call it Coach Education.”

That list is:

  1. Basing coaching education on sports science
  2. Failing to align coach development with athlete development pathways
  3. Believing competency based training is the new messiah
  4. Running workshops and conferences largely based on sports science, gimmicks, fads, and short cuts
  5. Giving token attention to mentoring programs
  6. Teaching outdated periodization processes
  7. Focusing more on teaching “what” and not “how” and “why”
  8. Creating courses based on the past, not the future
  9. Allowing course presenters who lack high level teaching, education, and communications skills
  10. Too much classroom-based coursework

I’m going to speak to a couple of points of particular focus for me. I encourage you, though, to read the full article.

I’ll just quickly touch on the sports science bit from #1. The main idea to that point is that as coaches we spend only a very small proportion of our time on this area of our work (the author suggests about 5%). In other words, it’s not a developmental area that is likely to have the biggest impact on our overall ability to do a good job as coaches. This is particularly true if you are – or intend to be – a full-time coach (or at least run your own program).

I especially like #4. It’s something that as a key part of Episode 3 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast. We had a trio of interviewees share their views about the importance of how you react to presentations at conferences and clinics, and what you see other coaches do with their teams. I would add to that the fixation in those educational venues on games and drills and other technical/tactical elements. Think “How do I fix ….?” (see You don’t need a new drill).

The mentoring point of #5 is something that was among the first subjects I took on in this blog. I think it’s a major area in need to development in volleyball coaching circles, as too many of us don’t get that kind of guidance. Instead, we are thrown into things without much in the way of direction, advice, etc.

The idea of shifting from “what” in #7 is something which very much hits home to me. I used to be a very technically focused as a coach. At some point, though, my mentality started shifting. I began to realize that what’s going on between a player’s ears was the bigger issue which definitely gets into the “why” of things.

Finding professional coaching opportunities

Volleyball Coach

When you’ve done something that most folks in your community haven’t done, but might be interested in doing, you tend to get questions about it. In my case, I’m one of a very small number of American coaches with experience coaching in a professional league in Europe. As a result, I periodically get questions about how to go about doing that – like this one:

Hi John,

Can I just bother you to ask about where a coach can find professional coaching opportunities in Europe? In particular, I was wondering how you got your job at Svedala last year – if there is an application to do like here in the UK or there in the US, or if it is thanks to links with other coaches. So mainly what is the process to become a professional coach in Europe?

Many thanks,

Matteo

First, let me direct anyone interested to the Coaching professional volleyball – advice wanted article I wrote. It talks about a lot of what I think you need to know, understand, and be prepared for when looking at professional coaching in Europe.

How does one get a professional coaching job?

Matteo asked how I got my job at Svedala. It was totally a networking thing. The outgoing coach (an Aussie) was in touch with a coaching contact of mine in Germany (an Argentine). The latter, knowing I was looking, put me in touch with the former. He pointed me in the direction of the club’s manager. Obviously, things went from there.

As to whether there’s an application process for these positions, there is – unless the club already has someone in mind. However, it’s not nearly as formal as for college jobs in the US, however. We’re not talking big organizations like universities here, after all. Think about your local volleyball club. That will give you a pretty good idea of how many people are involved in the decision-making process for hiring a coach.

Matteo mentions being in the UK. I don’t know what his citizenship status is. If he’s EU, though, then he’s definitely got some advantages in landing a professional volleyball coaching job there. Even more so if he’s got language skills. The latter are especially handy for someone thinking to be an assistant coach because of the additional duties for coaching lower level (youth) teams which often come with those jobs.

Network, network, network!

No matter what, though, networking is hugely important. You need it to have people to act as recommendations when putting in for jobs. Perhaps even more so in the early stages of your career, you need it to find out about job openings.

So my strong recommendation to anyone looking to coach professionally in Europe is to get out and meet fellow coaches and volleyball people. And not just meet them. Actually spend time with them so you get to know each other. The contact from Germany I mentioned above is some I actually spent about 10 days with while visiting with his team during the first part of their preseason.

Coaches making excuses

A while back, Mark Lebedew challenged coaches to realize something. While they are happy to point out excuse-making among their players, they are oftentimes just as likely to do the same thing. We may not be as obvious about it, but we do it.

Once upon a time I wrote about a conversation with a fellow US college coach who complained about the attitudes of modern players. My instinctual reaction was to think to myself that I hope lots of other coaches think that way. If so, I’ll have loads of coaching success by being more adaptive.

I’ve had similar reactions on reading about or hearing other coaches comment about entitled players or whatever. Mark cited the example of the SMU women’s basketball coach. The women’s basketball coach at Wisconsin took a similar view in a video that went viral through the coaching ranks.

I personally don’t think of players in generational terms. I look to work with each player based on their own personality, learning needs, and the like. It’s my job as their coach to help them get to where they need to be mentally and physically. I will keep working until I find the right way to reach, teach, and motivate them. [Tweet this ]

Mark and I seem to be in agreement on that.

The rest of Mark’s post takes on losing coaches going beyond simple excuses (it was the refs, etc.). They let themselves off the hook by saying things like “The players gave it everything they had.” With the assistance of some notable coaches, he makes the point that success isn’t just about effort and commitment. Rather it is their proper application. It’s our responsibility as coaches to get that application properly targeted.

The one push back I would have on some of that stuff is there are times when your team simply lacks the talent to win. I find it hard to blame the coach for a loss in those circumstances, or in them citing lack of talent as the reason for not winning. What I would look at, though, is whether the team played to the maximum of its capability – whatever that might be. Winning and losing may not be in the coach’s control. The manner in which they play is definitely something the coach is responsible for shaping, though.

Report from AOC Forth Worth

I spent most of last weekend in Fort Worth, TX in the gym at TCU. I was there to attend the Art of Coaching Volleyball clinic. As you can see from the photo of my name tag, I had VIP status. 🙂

This was my first time at an Art event. They got started during my hiatus from coaching. And of course up to a few months ago I was out of the country.

It was a working trip for me. I was there to interview the big three guys from Art – John Dunning, Russ Rose, and Terry Liskevych. It was a kind of cross-over thing between Art and Volleyball Coaching Wizards. As a result I didn’t get to see everything that went on during the sessions, though I got a pretty good overall feel.

I was asked a couple of times along the way for my impression. My initial reaction was probably not something you’d expect, though. It was, “Entertaining”. The guys have a good interaction with each other and generally have fun during their discussions and demonstrations. There was much smiling and laughter, both on the court and in the stands among the over 400 attendees (their biggest event so far).

The other thing that comes to mind is “fire hose”. I saw that because there are part of the clinic where the clinicians – in this case which also featured Jill Kramer (TCU), Christy Johnson-Lynch (Iowa State), and Tod Maddux (The Bishop’s School) – went rapid fire through drills and games that could be used for specific training desires (setting, hitting, competitive, etc.). It struck me as being a lot of ideas in a short period of time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most clinics for newer coaches end up being like a fire hose of information.

Of course there were other sessions which had a single clinician focusing on a specific topic. The morning of the first day and the whole second day were all on-court. The afternoon of the first day a mixture of court and classroom. The court sessions featured Wizard Ruth Nelson doing BYOP sessions and Deborah Newkirk doing sessions included ways to get kids handling the ball on their own and on generating energy and communication. Because of the interviewing stuff I couldn’t attend the classroom sessions and could only pop my head in on the Saturday afternoon on-court sessions.

Attending coaching education events is always an interesting experience for me. I’m well past the point of learning a bunch of new stuff or picking up several new drills or games. Still, there are usually some little things along the way that get me thinking about stuff. This event was no different.

Overall, I think the attendees got a lot out of the clinic. As I understand it, the bulk of the group was in the high school and/or juniors category. The content was definitely well suited for that group and I would recommend it strongly for early-career coaches.

Revisiting the 10,000 hour rule

Thanks to the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers, the so-called 10,000 hour rule came into broad use in the areas of achievement and talent. If you’re not familiar with the rule, here’s the gist. Basically, it suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of something. Tagged on to discussion of the rule is the question of the quality of those hours. There is a body of writing and research related to “deliberate practice”.

Well, according to this article, Gladwell misportrayed the research findings that were the basis for his book. Presenting academic and scientific papers in a mass-market friendly fashion can lead to this. The article goes on to explain the different ways there really is no such thing as a 10,000 rule.

Then there’s the question as to whether lots and lots of deliberate practice is sufficient to be a truly top performer. We as coaches know that’s not the only determining factor. In sports you need the physical attributes. I’m sorry, but if you’re 5’6″ you’re not going to be a hitter on the national team no matter how technically proficient you become at attacking.

The authors of the article do say Gladwell was spot on with one thing:

“…becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.”

Do you think coaching falls into that category?

Observations from USA Volleyball High Performance Try-Outs

During a couple weekends in April 2016 I took part in the High Performance try-outs. They happened the evening before the Lone Star qualifier tournament. The first was on a Friday before the younger age groups competed Saturday through Monday. The second was on Thursday before the older age groups played Friday through Sunday.

Each try-out was basically 4 hours. The first hour or so is administrative. The kids checked in, we measured height and reach, and tested block and approach jumps, plus a shuttle run. After that it was about evaluating the players in their positions and age groups. This took place through a series of single position drills, then multiple position drills, and finally 6 v 6 action.

From a staffing perspective, coaches like myself who volunteer had two sets of duties. During the first part we either checked kids in or tested and measured. In both cases I was on the jump testing station, which involved using the Vert device.

In the second part, the volunteers were either a court coach or an evaluator. Court coaches ran the drills and games. Evaluators assessed an assigned group of players. I was in the latter group both times around. The first week I had the outside hitters in the Select age group (born 2002-2003, so basically 14s). The second week I again had the outsides, but this time for the Youth group (2000-2001, basically 16s). This meant gauging the players on hitting, serve reception, defense, serving, and things like volleyball IQ.

The first tryout was very big – maybe 400 kids. The Select OH category I evaluated had 72 by itself. The second tryout was probably only about half the size as the focus was more on the older kids.

Obviously, there are challenges to running any try-out, never mind ones that big. I think there are ways to implement technology that could make things more efficient in terms of managing data, but you can’t really short cut the actual testing and evaluation processes. The evaluations are very standard and used for all try-outs. That includes the exact drills used. This is done to have consistency of measurement across try-outs which take place all over the country at different times.

Get out and help
I’m not going to say working these HP try-outs was the most exciting thing in the world. Try-outs generally aren’t high on most people’s list of fun times. These in particular, though, are a good way to meet and work with other coaches from around your region and beyond. They are also a chance to see how USA Volleyball does things and to maybe pick up some stuff you can incorporate into your own coaching in one fashion or another. They always need help, so make yourself available.

By the way, if you have any aspirations of getting involved in coaching at the national level you need to work at least one try-out. They are basically mandatory for being considered for inclusion in the staff of any of the programs USA Volleyball runs over the Summer. Those, in turn, are how you move up the USAV coaching ranks, should that interest you at all.

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