Archive for Volleyball Coaching Education

Volleyball Coaches – Stop talking!

Are you the sort of volleyball coach who talks a lot during your training sessions?

Actually, that’s a bit of a vague question. After all, how much is a lot? So let me restate –

Do you often stop practice to talk to the team or a single player and/or do you take more than 30 seconds or so to make your point before getting the team back to work?

If so, you may be talking too much.

You need to think very hard about the trade-off between the value of what you have to say to the team and the impact a stoppage. A pause to talk – especially a lengthy one – will affect the flow, intensity, and focus of your training. I’ve seen coaches bring practice to a screeching halt because they decided they needed to take 5 or 10 minutes to say something. When that happens the team has to get the intensity ramped back up. That takes time, particularly if the players have cooled down. Even worse is if the coach talk results in players mentally checking out. This is to be avoided.

If you need more than a minute to talk about something, you need to think about when to do it. Generally speaking, the beginning of training when the players haven’t warmed up yet, and the end of training as they are getting ready to cool down (or are doing so) are the best times to give longer talks. Those are non-disruptive points where you can take a several minutes to talk about things.

I’ve also seen many a coach stop a whole team’s training just to talk with one player.

This sometimes cannot be avoided. The setter is particularly problematic because many times when you need to talk with them it forces a drill stoppage. To the extent that you can, though, the best way to work with a single player is to take them out of a drill for a minute (perhaps subbing another player in to keep the drill moving). That lets you provide individual attention without bringing the whole team to a halt without having to do so.

I personally talk infrequently during practice. This is partly a personality thing (I’m more inclined to watch and listen rather than speak). It’s also, however, a function of wanting to let players work things out themselves where possible. I will only stop the team to talk with them if there’s something which needs to be immediately addressed. Often this is about correcting something I’m seeing multiple players do – or the team collectively – or to address the level of effort. I stop them, make my point as quickly as I can, then get them back to work.

Let’s face it. Players learn WAY more by actually doing than by us telling them stuff. Our job is to facilitate that process and provide guidance along the way. So keep in mind that the more you talk, the less they train.

That said, one can talk too little. One of my Exeter University men’s players told me something once. He said during the early part of the first season when, I took over the team, he thought I didn’t want to coach them because I was so quiet in training. In retrospect, I don’t think I needed to talk more in terms of the player/team development. Clearly, though, I could have done more to allow the players the opportunity to more quickly come to know me and how I operate. It is something I’ve kept in mind moving forward.

Understand what you’re learning before you teach it

An article came to my attention in the area of horse riding instruction which makes some interesting points. Not a subject area many volleyball coaches have any experience with, I know. Coaching is coaching, though, and no matter the venture, it has some common challenges. Here’s a snippet I thought was very insightful:

Instructors can only teach what they know or what they see. We have a generation of copy cat instructors who see something but have no idea about the principles behind what they see.

This comment echos elements of what I discussed in my Fancy New Drill Syndrome post. Developing coaches remember drills they may have liked as players themselves. They then pick up new drills they think are cool because some high profile coach uses them. The problem comes when the underlying purpose and structure of a drill (or game) is not properly understood. That can lead to it’s misuse in training.

We must also extend this to skill training. Here too, before a coach can properly train a player to serve, pass, or hit a certain way they really need to understand the underlying mechanics and philosophy for the given approach. A lot of stuff is put out there in volleyball coaching conferences and clinics. Oftentimes, the presenters are high level collegiate and national team coaches. This raises the perception of the importance or value of what’s taught.

Just because Coach X said it…

I’ve been around long enough to have seen waves of coaching techniques being passed from coach-to-coach in the volleyball community. They quite often start with the national team program (or former members thereof such as Gold Medal Squared). That tends to lend them weight, especially with newer coaches. This sometimes create a near cult-like following. The problem is often what is used at the higher levels cannot (and in some cases should not) be used at the lower levels where most coaches operate. Unfortunately, developing coaches sometimes don’t recognize this. They try to use drills, games, or skill teaching techniques which simply aren’t appropriate.

So when you learn new volleyball drills or games, or any other coaching method, make sure you really understand them. Know them inside out and you can better put them to good use with your players. If you’re a newer coach, don’t hesitate to get the input from those more experienced than you.

Tip for Coaching Volleyball: Watch more volleyball!

How much volleyball do you watch?

Do you only watch the matches your team plays? What about those of your competition? And how about those of prospective players for your team or club? How about matches in which you have no personal stake?

Now imagine you’re a coach for an NCAA Division I team (the top collegiate level in the U.S.).

Your team plays roughly 30 matches during the main competitive season (Spring for men, Autumn for women). Maybe it gets in a half-dozen more during the off-season. You watch video of your team’s matches to identify problem points. You watch video of your competition to scout them for upcoming matches. Of course you watch loads of video sent to you by prospective recruits to your program. That’s along with spending long hours in convention centers and gyms watching Juniors competition (and sometimes high school matches). And if you’re a junkie (like me), you watch matches on TV or online as well – time permitting.

Now let’s compare that to your average club coach in England, as an example.

Your team plays say 20 matches a year in whatever league you’re in, and that’s spread out over about an 8-month period. You aren’t recording your matches and you certainly aren’t exchanging video with upcoming competitors for scouting purposes, so watching lots of match video is out. Recruitment isn’t a major thing, so you’re not out observing loads of youth matches or highlight videos as a part of your duties.

Which coach do you think is more rapidly growing their understanding of the game and getting the broader perspective on things?

I don’t make this comparison to denigrate volleyball coaching in England, or anywhere else, especially since there are plenty of US coaches operating at a similar level. Instead, I’m trying to demonstrate a developmental opportunity.

We learn from both observation and experience. Watching lots of volleyball is part of the process of learning about coaching volleyball.

It’s no good, though, to just watch as a supporter or fan of a team, however. You need to do so with a critical eye. What’s going on in the match and why? What makes this player good or that player poor? What strategies are being employed by the coaches involved? It’s not watching to enjoy the experience of watching, in other words. It’s watching to understand and critique – basically, watching with a coach’s eye rather than a spectator’s.

In fact, it would be a good exercise to watch matches with a paper and pen (perhaps more likely a tablet these days) to take notes and make observations. Think of it like being a reporter. Rather than writing about who won and loss and which players were the stars, though, you’re writing about the strategies, offensive and defensive systems, player mechanics, etc.

Watching lots of volleyball with that critical eye, especially across different levels of play, will definitely accelerate your development as a coach.

Big rewards from seeing fellow volleyball coaches in action

During the course of just over three weeks in 2013 I spent a total of eight days watching various teams go through their training, and two other days taking in matches. It was a fantastic experience. I made some positive new connections. It reinforced some old relationships. And it was great for reconnecting me with US collegiate volleyball after several years away.

As you might expect, sitting in on 13 different training sessions from 5 different collegiate teams (URI, USC, Long Beach State, CSU San Marcos, and UCLA in that order) saw me get some ideas for drills and training methods. I posted several in the Drills and Games categories.

Drills and game ideas can be found in many different sources, though. For me it was more interesting to see a couple of different things. One of them was how certain aspects of the game had changed in the prior few years. In particular, it was clear to me that there had been an evolution in jump float serve mechanics. The changes in the use of the libero was interesting to observe as well, among other things.

The other was seeing the ways the various programs operate and the different types of managerial styles. Teams have different levels of resources allocated to them, and that can play a part. For example, USC has a fantastic training facility and loads of staff on the one end. CSU San Marcos, on the other hand, had to play its home matches at a local high school. They also only had a part-time assistant coach. Some head coaches are more supervisors and big picture overseers. Others are very hands-on in training, either through requirement or personal coaching focus. I also saw variations in the way warm-ups were handled, practice uniforms, and generally the vibe of the teams in training (though that was largely subtle).

Needless to say, I jotted down quite a few notes. I also recorded several bits of video to help me recall things and to provide visual and auditory support to my players of the things I was trying to teach them.

Actually, the most rewarding time was getting to talk with the coaches. Some of them were folks I already knew, and we had all sorts of good conversations. Even those I was meeting for the first time, however, were generally quite willing to chat about what they were doing and answer questions. Some even shared things with me on related subjects with no prompting whatsoever.

I definitely recommend this sort of experience from a lot of perspectives, including a mentorship type of angle along the line of I wrote about in Making Mentorship Part of the Process. In fact, it may be something which can lead to finding yourself a good coaching mentor. Even if that’s not the case, seeing other coaches in action – particularly well-experienced ones – can get you seeing things from different perspectives. That’s never a bad thing.

So get out there and do it! You don’t need to make a 3-week trip like I did to learn some new things. Just find a good coach in your area and see if they’d be willing to have you come along and observe. Chances are they’ll say yes.

Getting validation from an elite volleyball program

Back in 2013 I spent two days at the University of Southern California (USC) during preseason. Head coach Mick Haley was kind enough to let me hang out with him and his staff observing preseason two-a-days. In the first preseason poll that year, USC came in ranked #4. Preseason polls are always a bit iffy, but regardless, we’re still talking about one of the best teams in the country that year.

In other posts I shared some of the drills and whatnot I saw being used. There were some potentially very useful ones. You can find them here, here, here, here, and here.

For now, though, I want to talk a bit about the concept of validation. Many coaches see watching other coaches run training as an opportunity to pick up new drills or training methods. That certainly can be the case. What is probably even more important, though, is seeing that others – especially those with more experience – do things like you do and/or have a similar philosophy. That can provide a great deal of validation.

In my case this time around it came from watching the USC assistant coach, Tim Nollan, running setter training. It was a mechanical issue I won’t go into now, but I wrote about it here. Suffice it to say that Tim (obviously with Coach Haley’s backing) was encouraging something I have long made a focus with the setters I’ve trained. I is counter to the approach I’ve seen taken in a lot of gyms (if it’s even addressed at all), though. Having the opportunity to see the coaching staff of a top volleyball team train their players the same way I do goes a long way toward validating my own methods. It was both satisfying and encouraging.

Now, I should say you must be a bit cautious with this sort of validation. It’s very easy to just look for things that confirm your thinking and not pay attention to what challenges it. This is called confirmation bias. That is counter-productive.

So get out there and watch your peers, but with a fully open mind!

The State and Future of Volleyball Coaching Development in England

As I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions, I attended Coaching Conference 2013 put on by Volleyball England at the start of June. Part of the presentation was on the current state of coaching in the country and the breakdown of certification levels. I’ve now got the slides from the presentation, so I can show you some of what I found interesting – and some of what I was questioned about when I talked with people regarding it afterwards.

First, let me start of with a graph which shows the fraction of volleyball coaches registered with Volleyball England by region.


It’s interesting that the South West has the third most registered coaches. That tells me we have sufficient numbers in the area to do some interesting things if we get properly organized and motivated.

Here is a chart which shows the Volleyball England coaching registrations and the number of coaches at each certification level going back to the start of 2009.

Volleyball England Coaching Registrations and Certifications

There’s clearly been some nice growth in the total number of volleyball coaches in England – or at least those registering with the national governing body. The first level certifications are up, though not quite at the same rate (I think you need to combine the UKCC Level 1 and VE Level 1 to get the proper tally as I think the UKCC has taken over for that level). Level 2 coaches had a bit of a dip, but have turned back up. I think Volleyball England will be concerned if they don’t see that line get back to the same kind of upslope seen from 2009 to 2011.

As for the nearly flat line for Level 3 coaches, we were told that’s a function of Volleyball England not running the course very often. Obviously, there’s truth in that, but part of our discussions during the conference was the motivation for volleyball coaches to progress to that level. After all, at this stage it is not mandatory for anything. Plus, the course runs a week and has a pretty sizable price tag (I’ll report my own opinions on the course after I take it in August)

Here is a chart based on a survey Volleyball England did. I understand it to indicate the proportion of responding volleyball coaches who said they coach at each of the three age groups.

VECoachAgesTo me there’s a problem with this chart. I think ideally we’d probably want to see the u14 bar highest and the adult bar lowest. More realistically, though, we should look for the 15-18 bar being higher than the adult one. I would venture to say that is what you’d see in the US where there are thousands of high school and Juniors club volleyball teams (especially for girls), but only perhaps a bit north of 1000 collegiate programs and relatively few coached adult club teams. I think it’s the middle area where the work needs to be done to really grow the sport.

Lastly, here’s the slide showing the coach development pathway the Volleyball England folks see (click it for a bigger version):

Click for a full-sized version

Click for a full-sized version

If you look at the levels of play/coaching listed on the left and see how they line up with the coaching certification levels you’ll quickly realize that things are very different today – at least in the middling and lower ranks. For example, I’m pretty sure the majority of NVL coaches aren’t VE Level 3 certified. This speaks to what I mentioned before about the motivation of coaches to carry on up the levels. Unless a minimum certification is required to coach at a given level, there is probably going to continue to be the same sort of pattern as we see in the levels chart above.

I’d be very curious to hear what others think on this subject.

Making Mentorship Part of the Process

In 2013 I attended a coaching conference run by Volleyball England. It wasn’t an educational event so much. It was more like as an opportunity to hear about where they were looking to take things. We also had the opportunity to share thoughts and ideas toward that end. For me the objective was to get a big picture view of what’s happening in the English volleyball community where coaching – and youth development, as it turns out – was concerned.

The overarching objective the V.E. folks told us they have is to create a world class volleyball coaching systems (their words, not mine). We were given handouts diagramming how coaches could progress through the various levels of certification. We talked about all that. Examples from other sports like cricket and rugby were provided. Then we broke up into little groups to generate discussion points for future consideration.

For me there was one glaring issue in the structure of volleyball coach developing in England. Namely the lack of mentorship. An educational structure is valuable, but there is nothing like learning at the side of an experienced individual. Outside of small pockets, that doesn’t seem to exist. Certainly I didn’t see much evidence of it in the South West.

Learning from those who’ve been there and done that

My own coaching career began as an assistant to the head coach of the girls’ team in my high school. Basically, I just helped out running a few drills in varsity team practices. That later extended, though, to helping out the team’s assistant coach with junior varsity training. After graduation I helped with the boys’ team as well.

Later, after a lengthy break during which I focused on playing and then my professional career, I became a part-time assistant coach at a 2-year Junior College. That was my first collegiate position. From there I moved on to assist on a full-time basis for a pair of Division I universities. I learned a massive amount from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I went through USA Volleyball‘s equivalent to VE’s coaching certification program (CAP). I also attended conferences and seminars, read coaching books, and watched videos by prominent collegiate coaches. Think of me as a big a sponge.

That’s not the same as seeing all those things (drills, systems, etc.) put into action by an experienced head coach, though. Even more so when you are involved in doing it yourself as an assistant coach. There’s a lot of nuance to running a team, especially when you add in an organizational structure on top of it.

And importantly, getting to work under multiple head coaches lets you see things from different perspectives. We all coach a bit differently and we all have different coaching situations. A female coach is likely to have a different approach to certain things than a male coach. Coaching for a major university is not the same as coaching for a small local school, which in turn is not the same as coaching a Juniors team.

Learning by coaching

Please be aware, though, that this is not me saying one must just be an assistant or apprentice coach. During my years coaching collegiately I was often also the head coach for a Juniors team. That allowed me to put what I was learning into practice and to start developing my own coaching style. At the same time I could bring that experience and perspective back to my work as an assistant.

And of course my own experience is not the only way one can develop as a coach. There are many examples of P.E. teachers who took on a high school team and became very good coaches with long careers teaching and coaching. Some of them eventually progress into the collegiate ranks and work their way up by demonstrating success.

There are also former players who moved into the coaching ranks at a lower level after their playing careers were over and started working up from there. I actually worked under two coaches who started their careers running high school teams, one of whom had previously been an All-Conference player in her own right.

There is no doubt, though, that it helps to head coach at a given level if you’ve spent some time assisting at that level. And having someone there along the way to help you navigate your way in developing your coaching knowledge and talent can only accelerate one’s development.

Putting it into practice here

All of what I said above was a major motivation for developing this website and its related social media outlets. I wanted to see a structure develop whereby coaches could learn from each other. Most especially I wanted to see a system unfold where mentoring of new coaches by experienced ones could take place.

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