Archive for Volleyball Coaching News & Info

I am an author again. Info on my latest book

As you may be aware, back in 2015 I started a project with Mark Lebedew called Volleyball Coaching Wizards. Basically, we interview great coaches from all over the world. So far we’ve done more than 40 of them. Back in the latter part of 2016 we released the first Wizards book. In it we presented eight full interviews. They were chosen to represent a kind of cross-section of the coaches we’d sat down with to that point.

Mark and I have just come out with a second Wizards book. This one takes a very different approach, though.

As you can imagine, when you talk with 40+ great coaches there are going to be some really interesting nuggets of information that come out. Mark and I took a bunch of them and they formed the basis for this new book. We titled it Volleyball Coaching Wizards – Wizard Wisdom.

I think of this book as being more of a “practical” text than the first one. By that I mean it offers insights and perspectives on more day-to-day type of subjects. Those subjects include things like developing team culture and chemistry, planning practices, handling the team on match day, and developing yourself as a coach.

There isn’t much in the way of specific games and drills or the technical/tactical side of things here. You can find that stuff in plenty of other places. Instead, think of this book as speaking to the thought processes that lead to making those choices.

The book is fairly short at only about 160 total pages. There are 15 chapters, but each only has a few pages, so they make for a quick read. For me, that was an important point. Give readers some good stuff to think about, then move on.

Reviews from the folks who got a look at the advanced copy of the book have been excellent. An NCAA Division I women’s head coach told me:

I like the anecdotal style. Having practical information from coaches and then reflect on the success is a good style for me.

A long-time juniors and middle school coach said:

This must have been more difficult to write than the first book. And more enlightening.

A former NCAA men’s coach told me:

This is a very intriguing book. Pretty easy reading, I’d say. I liked that it’s a very conversational tone. Super easy to follow.

One of my classmates from the CAP III course said:

It’s great, really easy reading – I like the format. And the content is good too. I’ve recommended it to several groups I participate in.

For me, this was a really interesting book to develop. Obviously, I’m listed as author on the first book. In that case, though, Mark and I really just facilitated other people’s content. Here we generated a lot of the content ourselves, albeit with insights from the Wizards as the core framework.

For me, one of the big things I look for in a non-fiction book is that it gives me something to think about. I feel like that’s something we’ve accomplished with this new Wizards book. In fact, it’s kind of the whole point of the book.

Click here for more details and info on where you can get a copy.

For what it’s worth, during the run-up to release, when the Kindle version was available for pre-order, the book went to #1 among volleyball books on Amazon in the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Italy. I think that’s all of them. 🙂

5th Anniversary!

Five years ago today this blog was launched upon the world. What a ride it’s been!

Since the blog began in June 2013 about 300,000 visitors have tallied nearly 700,000 page views. That’s a far cry from what I expected when I launched the site. Can’t say I’m disappointed, though. The platform the blog created has led to many opportunities for me in the global coaching community.

Career stuff

Think about this.

Thanks to our mutual blogging interest, I connected with then fellow blogger Oliver Wagner from Germany (he’s since stopped blogging). In 2014 Oliver pointed me in the direction of another blogger, Mark Lebedew. That led to me visiting Mark at his then club, Berlin Recycling Volleys in the Spring of that year. Mark then played a critical part in my visiting the German pro teams in Potsdam and Bühl during their preseason that year. In Bühl I became friends with head coach Ruben Wolochin, an Argentine. In 2015 Ruben provided me with a connection that saw me hired to coach in Sweden. I also went back to Bühl that summer to help Ruben out with his preseason once more. Ruben later connected me with Santiago Gabari, who was the in-country coordinator for the Midwestern State Volleyball team trip to Buenos Aires in August 2017.

Winding things back to Mark, after my trip to Potsdam and Bühl in September 2014 he took me along for a day of World Championship action in Poland. That was my first ever major intentional volleyball event. In 2015 I visited with him again in Berlin for a longer stay during his German season. That trip featured my first ever CEV Champions League match. I later returned when BR Volleys hosted the Champions League Final Four that year. In 2017 I once again visited with Mark, this time in Poland at his then club, which hosted the Australian National Team’s training camp.

One more rewind needed. In 2015 Mark and I started work on the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project. That year, one of the interviews I conducted was with Ruth Nelson. It ended up in the first Wizards book. Ruth was later instrumental in my move to Midwestern State.

Expanded influence

The blog has also given me some interesting opportunities in terms of writing and coaching education. Other websites periodically pick up my content for their own purposes. Actually, from the early days the AVCA used some of my posts in their digital magazine. Later, I contributed a couple of articles to the print magazine as well. I was also invited to sit in on the Education committee meeting at the 2013 convention.

Parents?

Here’s something I definitely didn’t expect. In recent years I’ve heard that the parents of my players read the blog. That kind of blew my mind. I guess I can understand it a bit in that things like my coaching logs do necessarily provide some commentary about the squad. It’s a different perspective on things than parents get from match reports and the like. Still, it’s always a surprise when I hear about it. After all, they aren’t exactly my target audience.

Humbled by the breadth of readership

Another thing that surprised me early on, and continues to do so, is how many people I’ve spoken with from different parts of the world who read the blog. When I was in Germany in 2014 one of the staff coaches at SC Potsdam told me he was a reader. Last year in Argentina the head coach for the women’s team at Boca Juniors told me he reads the blog. Given the stats I reported at the top I should expect this sort of thing, right? For some reason, though, it’s still surprising and humbling every time it happens.

Where’s it going?

So where is this blog going? Honestly, I can’t say for sure. Part of that is because things are in flux for me professionally at the moment. Necessarily, where I land next will influence the direction of the blog moving forward – at least in terms of content. The one thing I do know is that I don’t have any plans to stop posting.

With any luck, in five more years I’ll be looking back on a decade of blogging with a bunch more interesting stuff having happened. 🙂

Looking at scoring streaks, odds, and service strategy

I like to engage with other coaching bloggers when I can. It’s a form of networking, which is never a bad idea. It also helps to foster communication and the exchange of ideas in our coaching community.

To that end, I want to address a post I came across. The author is Jim Dietz, though his name isn’t actually anywhere on the site (at least as I write this). Jim coaches at the junior college and club levels in the US. Like me, he’s also a book author.

In Jim’s post he takes on the subject of scoring points in streaks in volleyball, having looked at some numbers about bunch scoring in baseball. The conclusion that the post eventually leads to is that once you’ve scored two points in a row there’s an argument to be made for focusing on getting the next serve in to sustain the streak.

Baseball first

A quick thought on the baseball comparison Jim makes before shifting to volleyball. My immediate question about teams scoring in bunches being more successful is whether it’s a function of getting more players on base. I don’t know the statistics, but that’s the first thing I’d want to look at. If that’s the case, it means they are giving themselves more opportunities to score in general. As such, it’s not a case of winning because of scoring in bunches, but rather scoring in bunches because that’s what happens when you get a lot of runners on base, which produces more runs generally.

Scoring streaks required

Now, let me address the volleyball side of scoring streaks.

First, you simply cannot win a set in volleyball without scoring points in a row. This is the no-brainer aspect of Jim’s analysis. At the end of the day, points scored when you serve are what decides the game. In order to score a service point – aside from when you have the first serve of the set – you must first side out. That’s two points in a row – a mini streak.

If teams could only score at most one point from serve, then the team that had the greater number of mini streaks would win the set. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. Teams can run off multiple points when they have serve.

But with regards to Jim’s analysis, there’s a major causality question – as there could be in the case of the baseball stats. Does a team win because they score in bunches? Or does the better team just tend to score in bunches?

Looking at the odds

Jim’s analysis of randomly generated scores are actually very predictable. Even when you have something like a coin toss you will get streaks. Given enough tosses, it’s guaranteed. And when a streak does happen, the odds aren’t in favor of a comeback, so to speak.

Let me drill down on that. Say it’s 15-15 and one side has a 3-point streak to get it to 18-15. If the odds of siding out are 50% for both teams, then you’d expect them to score basically the same number of service points over the rest of the set. That would mean something like a 25-22 score line. Is there a chance that the losing team gets a streak, or even more than one? Yes, but it’s just as likely the leading time does so. That means the odds of the leading team winning are quite high.

The above provides a good basis for going along with what Jim says about trying to go for streaks. The problem, though, is that this is all based on the idea that point scoring is entirely a random process with fixed odds. If that’s the case, then nothing we do really changes things. But do we really believe the odds are fixed? Maybe when looking at large numbers of observations. At the set level, though, there are a lot of factors that can alter the odds.

Impact on serving strategy

And that brings up the big point I want to make.

Jim talks about not being as aggressive on your 2nd serve as on your 1st to increase the odds of getting that 3-point streak (counting the original side out). There’s a major flaw in Jim’s thinking, though. In theory, if you dial down the aggressiveness on your serve you lower your chances of scoring. Jim speaks as if doing so increases the odds of scoring. If that were the case, wouldn’t you just use that less aggressive serve all the time?

That said, I do think it can be the case that you want to focus on getting your serve in in certain circumstances. These, though, are situations where you believe the odds have shifted more in your favor – going back to the earlier point of odds changing. For example, the other team is looking error prone and you don’t want to let them off the hook by making your own. Again, though, if you believe that’s the case already then your 1st service strategy should already reflect this view.

Looking at jump count

In 2014 when I spent three weeks with a pair of German professional teams, I had a conversation with one coach about player jump counts. He was starting to use the VERT device to track jumps in training. It gave him a guideline as to when to shut things down. I had a similar conversation during one of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. It became the basis for a podcast.

All of this came after Volleywood posted something which suggested what I saw as a ridiculously high average player jump count. They said, “Most volleyball players jump about 300 times a match.” With no supporting evidence, I should note. I posted a comment contesting that idea. As this article shows, however, that idea somehow spread.

So what’s the truth?

The folks at VERT published a set of figures based on NCAA women’s volleyball. The following comes from an email they sent out which I received.

So setters jump the most, followed by setters, then outside hitters (probably including right sides). Notice none of them are anywhere close to 300. Yes, these are averages, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine any player in even the longest match getting to 300. Maybe, maybe hitters got that high back in the sideout scoring days when matches could go very long. Even then, that would be on the very high end, not the norm.

And according to the article I linked above, research indicates the average is significantly lower for beach players than indoor ones. Though for them you have to factor in playing multiple matches per day.

Training implications

So what does this mean for us as coaches?

It means it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have players do 150 or 200 jumps a day in practice when they will do far fewer in matches. If we do, then we are likely over-training, which puts us at risk of injury as a result of either fatigue or overuse. And we shouldn’t just think about jumps in practice here. We also have to consider jumps from strength training as well. It all adds up.

Why are some coaches more successful than others?

Volleyball Coach

The following was asked in a Facebook volleyball coaching group.

If you can identify the three most important reasons why some coaches are more successful than others, what would they be?

This is a subject I wrote about in different ways three times previously. In Judging coaching greatness I looked at how it’s very often national team coaches who get “best coach” recognition – at least globally. In another I shared some Traits of successful volleyball coaches. Finally, I wrote about The two biggest jobs of a coach.

Of course the subject of coaching success is a major part of Volleyball Coaching Wizards.

The question here, though, isn’t necessarily about coaching greatness. It’s about success. In those terms I know immediately what the top of my list of reasons why some coaches are more successful than others. After that it’s a bit fuzzier, but here goes.

More talent

We can argue about the definition of talent, but the bottom line is you are far more likely to win with better athletes and better players. This is why recruiting is such an important part of college coaching. It happens at the club level too – and even with high schools in some cases. The pressure to get the best athletes – and thereby have the best chance to win – at times leads to rules violations and unethical behavior, as we hear from time to time.

Even if winning isn’t the main objective, having the right type of players matter. That’s in terms of attitude, athleticism, work ethic, etc.

Communication skills

A frequent answer to the question is the ability to communicate well. That’s definitely one I’ll go along with. It’s really hard to accomplish big things as a coach if you cannot get your message across to your players. And receive information back, as well.

A vision

Success can have a lot of different meanings. Sometimes it’s about winning. Sometimes it’s about player development. Whatever the case, to succeed you must have a vision of what that is and how to get there. This is the foundation of the work you do on a day-to-day basis and speaks to your priorities.

Beyond that …

I think the above three elements are fairly universal to all coaching situations. Beyond them things start to be more situation and/or coach dependent. What makes for a successful college coach can vary quite a bit from what a juniors coach needs to be at the top level. And it’s a different situation coaching 12s new to the game than coaching 18s trying to win a bid to Junior Nationals.

Also, things can balance out in ways. As a coach you may be stronger in one area that makes up for a weakness in another.

What do you think? What leads to coaching success in your opinion.

Reader questions on approach, knee slides, and run-throughs

A reader submitted three questions.

  1. Do you prefer a 3 step or 4 step approach for young outside hitters
  2. Is it proper to teach a player to slide to both knees for short serve receive balls
  3. Your thoughts on “run throughs” when passing a ball versus getting a balanced base set?

Let me address them one-by-one.

Approach length

I personally don’t have a strong preference on 3-step or 4-step approach. I know some coaches favor one over the other, but I’m just not one of them. For me it’s more an individual basis sort of thing. Some players do very well with a 3-step, while for others the fourth one definitely helps them.

To my mind, the first major thing new players need to sort out is the last two steps. Those are by far the most important, especially since there are many situations where a player cannot make a full approach. It’s really important for a hitter to be able to use those two steps to open up. If not, they will end up hitting square, which is not good for the back or shoulder.

Slide to knees

I am not in favor of players going to both knees, really in any situation. When I coached the Exeter women I had a player who went straight from standing to both knees to play low balls. And this was one of my middles! I used to cringe every time I saw it. Ouch!

In contrast, one of the Exeter men was excellent at going to one knee to play a short ball in front of him. Think of it as basically a lunge lead step, with the trailing knee then sliding up to be tucked underneath.

My view is that we don’t need players’ knees hitting the floor if we can avoid it. Too easy to cause harm, and given how sweaty kneepads get, they’re bound to leave a wet spot on the floor in the middle of a rally.

The one possible exception to this is when the player is trying to take the ball with their hands. That’s a situation where the ball is perhaps too high for a platform dig or pass. Even there, though, you may argue in favor of a different technique.

Obviously, in emergency situations you have to do whatever it takes. If we’re talking about training techniques, though, I’d not be working on two-knee stuff.

Run-throughs

A run-through is for balls you need to chase down, not for balls you can relatively easily get under. Generally speaking, you will have better platform angle control when you are stable than when running. Why add in the extra variable if you don’t need to?

UK university volleyball options for Americans

I received a question from an NCAA Division I assistant coach asking about US players going to the UK to play volleyball as post-graduate students. In this post I will address that subject as best I can.

The 2017-18 figures released by USA Volleyball show at least 45 players receiving international transfer certificates to play in England. There could be more playing for UK universities who did not get an ITC because they don’t play in the top level of the National League (NVL) there. For example, I had a couple of Americans play for me at Exeter. Since we did not play in the NVL they didn’t need ITCs.

The point I’m trying to make is there are quite a few Americans playing in England each year. A number of them are even on scholarships. Mainly, those are post-graduates. Think players who finished their NCAA playing career, but weren’t quite ready to stop playing competitive volleyball.

If you’re looking for a scholarship you need to find a university where volleyball is a performance sport. Most universities have volleyball clubs that compete in BUCS, which is the rough UK equivalent to the NCAA (the NAIA might be a better comparison). The performance programs, however, are a different situation. They are much more akin to what we would call varsity sports in the US. There aren’t that many of them, though.

Universities with performance volleyball programs

Here are at least some of the universities that have volleyball as a performance sport. I’ve included links to their information web page.

On the women’s side, Durham and Northumbria have been the top teams for several years. For the men, Sheffield Hallam and Northumbria have consistently been at the top, but Bournemouth is a regular championship contender as well. Essex and East London in recent years have also pushed themselves into the conversation.

Bournemouth was in the same BUCS league as Exeter when I coached there. I also got to coach against Durham (men) and Northumbria (women) in Final 8s.

Recruitment

If you go to a university without a performance program – or you just want a less intense volleyball experience – you’ll simply be part of the school’s club program. Generally speaking, that just means turning up for their tryouts or something along those lines when school starts. Easy enough.

If you want to go the performance route, however, you should think of it like the college recruitment process. You’ll want to reach out to the program(s) you’re interested in, provide them information about yourself, give them some video, etc.

Placement service

Several years back a service was developed by a woman who herself played in the UK as a post-graduate. It is called TeamGleas. Think of it as an athlete promotional service that universities subscribe to. They don’t just cover the UK. If you, or someone you know, is thinking about playing and going to school abroad, it might be worth having a look.

There may be other services out there as well. I just don’t know of them.

Keep in mind

A word of warning is required here. You should not expect the same level of support and facilities in the UK as you see at US colleges and universities (especially the higher level ones). Volleyball just isn’t that big a sport over there. This goes doubly when talking about the non-performance club programs. Training for them might only be once or twice a week, possibly with no coach.

And the competition in BUCS won’t be spectacular. Since most teams are club programs, they just aren’t that strong. The performance programs, though, are generally linked in with a club playing in one of the top divisions of the National League. That’s much more serious, and in some cases includes professional (or at least semi-pro) players.

I bring this up not to discourage anyone from going to the UK to study and play volleyball. I just want to make sure the expectations are realistic. If nothing else, it’s could be a great experience on many levels. Certainly, it provides opportunities to do some interesting travel.

Questions?

I hope this post provides the information you need to at least start thinking about things and exploring your options. If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them if I can. If I can’t, I might be able to get them from my contacts among the coaches over there.

The two biggest jobs of a coach

When it comes to coaching a team there are two main responsibilities. I’m not talking about off-court administrative requirements. Those can vary considerably between teams and organizations. I’m talking here about on-court, in the gym. That’s the common ground for all coaches. Those two responsibilities are setting priorities and deciding who’s on court during matches.

Setting priorities

As coaches, one of the most important things we do is assess our teams and players, and set training priorities. We decide which skills and/or tactics to focus on in practice. We decide which part of a player’s game we want to get the most attention. These priorities then filter in to how we develop practice plans and where we concentrate our feedback. At least they should!

You may be the best in the world at technical training. If you don’t pick the right skills to develop, though, you’re wasting time and effort.

Think of it this way. The first thing you have to do as a coach is decide where you want the team to go. That might change along the way, but you always need to have a destination in mind. Once that’s in place, you then map a course to get you there. If you have no destination, who knows where you’ll end up.

Playing time

When it comes to match-day coaching, the most important thing we do is decide who’s playing and in what role. That’s a combination of starting line-up and substitutions.

Obviously, there are things you can do in terms of strategy, managing the team’s emotional state during play, and the like. All of that, though, follows on from your team selection. If you don’t get the personnel on court right, the rest of it probably won’t matter too much.

Yes, there is more to it

Of course there is more to successful coaching. For example, recruiting is extremely important in the college and professional levels. Keeping kids academically eligible is important in any school team situation. There’s scheduling considerations and any number of other off-court details that need to be managed.

When it comes to on-court stuff, however, good prioritization and line-up decisions are the key factors in coaching success. Everything else comes in to play from there.

The NCAA’s Performance Indicator

If you follow college sports in the US then you’ve probably heard about the RPI. I’ve written about it before. It’s also something I’ve brought up in my coaching log entries. It’s a highly quantitative way of ranking teams toward NCAA tournament selection, or the playoffs in the case of college football (FBS).

The RPI is actually only part of the selection process. The other criteria look something like this.

  1. Overall Division II won-lost results.
  2. Opponents’ average winning percentage.
  3. Opponents’ opponents’ average winning percentage.
  4. Head-to-head competition.
  5. Results versus common opponents.
  6. Results versus Division II ranked teams (all regions – once ranked, always ranked).

The first three on the list above are actually part of the RPI calculation.

Apparently, a move was put forward to drop the results vs. Division II ranked teams. In it’s place goes the Performance Indicator (PI). Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. It’s been around for a while. It doesn’t get much press, though.

The PI has a very similar thought process as the RPI, though with a meaningful addition. Like the RPI, it values winning strongly, while also giving a boost for playing better teams. One thing the PI factors in that the RPI doesn’t, however, is whether the results are home, away, or on neutral ground.

Calculating the PI

23 − Win on road against a .750 or above team
22 − Win neutral-site game against a .750 or above team
21 − Win at home against a .750 or above team
20 − Win on road against a .500-.749 team
19 − Win neutral site game against a .500-.749 team
18 − Win at home against a .500-.749 team
17 − Win on road against a .250- .499 team
16 − Win neutral site game against a .250-.499 team
15 − Win at home against a .250-.499 team
14 − Win on road against a .000-.249 team
13 − Win neutral site game against a .000-.249 team
12 − Win at home against a .000-.249 team
11 − Road loss to .750 or above team
10 − Neutral site loss to a .750 or above team
9 − Home loss to a .750 or above team
8 − Road loss to a .500-.749 team
7 − Neutral site loss to a .500-.749 team
6 − Home loss to a .500-.749 team
5 − Road loss to a .250-.499 team
4 − Neutral site loss to a .250-.499 team
3 − Home loss to a .250-.499 team
2 − Road loss to a .000-.250 team
1 − Neutral site loss to a .000-.250 team
0 − Home loss to a .000-.250 team

Divide the total by matches played and you have the PI.

Impact on scheduling?

So first priority is to win, and especially to win on the road. If you’re going to lose, then you want to lose on the road against very good teams. We joked in the office while going over this that no one will want to host anymore since even if you lose you get more points doing so on the road. 🙂

Honestly, I don’t think the PI will factor into things for most teams. For some conferences the only realistic way to get into the NCAA tournament is to win the league title, so the teams there don’t care overly much about these other considerations. Perhaps teams that dominate a given conference care, as it goes toward their NCAA tournament seeding, but that’s about it.

In the more competitive conferences, however, the story is a bit different. For example, in the South Central region the Lone Star Conferences and the Rocky Mountain Conference contribute 7 of the 8 teams to the NCAA tournament at the regional level. That means each year there is not only a battle for who makes the tournament, but also for who gets seeded where (and by extension, who hosts).

Note, though, that there are several other important criteria, two of which related to direct comparison between teams. That means you can’t necessarily just focus on maximizing PI.