Archive for Volleyball Coaching Stories

Anja’s story

In June 2018 I got a notice from Facebook that it was the 25th birthday of one of the players I coached at Exeter – a young woman named Anja. A Croatian, Anja was one of the approximately two dozen non-English players I coached during my time in England. In 2012-13, my first year there, she was one of the two club co-captains. In 2013-14 she was part of the team that reached the UK university national semifinals in Edinburgh.

Anja was easily the tallest player in the squad. Her jump was practically non-existent, though. It was something of a running joke, in fact. Anja also had a cannon for an arm, and terrified her pepper partners. It wasn’t the power, though. It was the fact that she hit the ball with no spin. You couldn’t be sure quite where it was going. Even really experienced players were scared to pepper with Anja. πŸ™‚

My first year at Exeter Anja was our third string middle, and she seemed quite happy with that. I got the impression from the few times she did play that she would have been fine staying on the bench. Despite her size and power, she was inexperienced – and not particularly skilled either.

The Anja who returned for the start of the 2013-14 season was a different player. She’d clearly worked out over the Summer, and was eager for the team to do great things that year. There was still a tentativeness to her play at the beginning, though, and she still had much to learn. As a result, she was one of 3-4 players all competing for the second starting middle spot.

Two decisions made all the difference

Something that really helped Anja that year was a club decision from the prior Spring. The newly elected club captains and I decided to add second teams to both the men’s and women’s side of things. While the first teams competed in Division 1, the second teams would play in Division 2.

Now, I should clarify something about when I say “teams”. You see, we trained everyone together. There was no first-team-only or second-team-only type of practices. We had one squad of I think 14 players that we split as needed for matches.

A second decision from the Spring was to enter the team in the Southwest Regional league. The year before they played in the Exeter city league, but that was co-ed on a men’s net and low quality play. It was a joke in terms of helping the players get better. In the Southwest league we got I think 14 matches on a proper women’s net. The opposition was of mixed quality, but it was good experience.

Those Division 2 and Regional matches were massive for the team overall, and certain player specifically. Instead of a select few getting the vast majority of the playing time, the whole squad got to play quite a bit.

Impact on Anja

Playing time is usually not a switch that makes a player better. They generally have to cycle between training and playing for the lessons to get learned and for them to reach a kind of tipping point in their development.

During the first half of our season in 2013-14, despite the playing time, Anja made all the mistakes you’d expect of an inexperienced middle. She took balls that weren’t hers and let other go that were. Her movements sometimes caused problems on the court. I remember her teammates’ frustration with her during the Student Cup qualification tournament in November. At that time Anja was probably the #5 middle in the rankings.

Up to that point, Anja had played in several matches as a starter – mainly in the Regional league. While her skill development still left a lot to be desired, one critical element had changed. Anja was now a confident player on the court. Gone was the young woman who played only reluctantly the year before. This made a massive difference in her development. It gave her much needed focus.

Anja becomes a starter

At the end of the first term the team held its annual holiday dinner. During the event there were some awards. One of those was Most Improved.

No. That didn’t go to Anja. It went to one of the players new to the team who, like Anja, was a major beneficiary of the added competition and playing time. She was very inexperienced and made really big gains. If I remember correctly, though, when we held the year-end banquet in March it was Anja who got the award.

I can’t remember at this point when Anja finally took hold of the second Middle starting spot for good. I do know she had it totally locked in before we went to Edinburgh for Final 8s in March. Between the Student Cup in November and then Anja got to play a bunch more matches. She smoothed out those rough patches that caused problems and became a very consistent performer. She wasn’t a star, but you knew what you were going to get.

The cherry on top

And to top Anja’s season off, we did the completely unexpected. The Exeter Women reached the national semifinal. Honestly, our goal was really just to put in a respectable performance at Final 8s, since it was the first time in anyone’s memory that the women’s team had gone that far (if ever). So when we accomplished what we did it left us all floating on a cloud. And Anja started all four of the matches we played.

She’d gone from near the bottom of the depth charts to starting on a team that accomplished something historic.

Going out on top

Anja graduated from Exeter that year. She went on to do grad school in London. I asked her at the time if she was going to keep playing, but she said she wasn’t. Her feeling was that she couldn’t possibly match the 2013-14 season’s experience. She’d prefer to let that be her final volleyball memory.

When Facebook told me it was Anja’s 25th birthday I sent her a message joking that it was all downhill from there. She replied, “It was all downhill from Edinburgh!

The moral

It was, of course, a young person saying that. Those of us who’ve got a few more years behind us know there are a lot of significant events in our lives after 25 – even if we do joke that that’s when we peaked. πŸ™‚

Still, there’s no doubt that whole experience was a meaningful one for Anja. It’s something she probably will remember for a long time, and I’m willing to bet some of the things she learned along the way will serve her for years to come. This is something we coaches need to be cognizant of in our work.

There’s a good chance you mainly work with young people. That means you are helping to create experiences and facilitate lessons learned that could influence their lives for years to come – positively or negatively. You are helping to shape the person they will be.

Think about that – the trust you’ve been given. Be responsible for it. Make sure you are doing everything you can to further your players’ development in a positive, meaningful fashion.

It’s not about you.

Don’t give me reason to want to bury you

The other day was the anniversary of my initial arrival in Sweden. Facebook told me so. I was only there initially for a couple of weeks to get to know the Svedala area a bit after leaving England. I went to Germany for about three weeks before I actually began work with the team at the start of preseason.

At that point I didn’t know what the future had in store for me. I knew I was coaching my first professional team. That’s about it. For the first time in a while I didn’t have concerns about my next step in life.

Seven months later it was a very different situation. I’d just been cut loose by the club out of the blue. It was definitely a shock, and it stung. At that point, though, my main focus was on getting out of Sweden and finding a new job. Then I had to move and start a new position. It was a whirlwind that probably didn’t give me as much time to process things emotionally as might have been the case otherwise.

A couple weeks ago I chatted with one of the Svedala players. I asked her how things went after I left. As much as I wanted to know during the season what changes were implemented – if any – I didn’t want to ask. It could have been a distraction, which would not have been fair to the team.

Anyway, major changes were highly unlikely. The squad was too small and the player positions and roles were well-established. She confirmed that and told me the big issue the rest of the season was player confidence in certain areas. Sadly, that was a reversal of a major focus from the first part of the season.

Surprisingly to me, some emotion about that whole Svedala situation bubbled up recently. The timing is interesting given the anniversary. I found myself thinking about going back to Sweden some day with the intent to dominate the Elitserie with another club. It’s definitely an “I’ll show you!” type attitude.

And thus do you learn that telling me I can’t or I’m not good enough is a great way to motivate me to show you just want I am capable of – at your expense. πŸ™‚

Looking back on the 2015-16 season

The professional leagues in Europe have finished their seasons. The NCAA has crowned a set of men’s champions, and its first one in sand. Around the world national teams have come together to get going on their Summer’s work. I suppose it’s time for me to look back on the last year from my own coaching perspective.

At about this time last year I was in an uncertain situation. My PhD funding at the University of Exeter was quickly running out and my path forward was unclear. I applied for many college coaching jobs in the States, but got just one phone interview. I also put in for a handful of jobs with clubs in Europe. It was to the point I was very seriously beginning to look at jobs in the financial world. That’s where I worked before shifting to Exeter in 2012.

As you probably know, I ended up being hired to coach the Svedala club in Sweden. You can read my coaching log for my time there here. I’d heard good things from people I knew who coached and/or played there, so I was looking forward to it. Needless to say, things didn’t end up quite the way I was expecting. I have since moved on to an assistant coaching role at Midwestern State University (MSU).

As you can imagine, I’m not nearly as stressed out now as I was this time last year! πŸ™‚

Unhappiness in Sweden

I wrote shortly after leaving Sweden about how without realizing it I was somewhat unhappy in my time there. Or at least I was less happy. My feelings about the experience are certainly mixed.

I had an exchange with a coaching friend a while back about how I should feel about being let go by Svedala. In particular I wondered whether I should hope they did well or poorly following my departure. He said I was well within my rights to hope they totally went in the tank. That would clearly show the club was wrong to get rid of me. πŸ˜‰

I actually couldn’t go quite that far, though. I sincerely liked the players – even if my feelings about the club were somewhat less positive. There’s no way I would wish poor results on them. As I reported, they finished 4th in the playoffs after ending the regular season 3rd in the standings.

Could I have done it better?

I won’t lie. There’s a part of me that feels like I could have at least gotten them into the finals. And if we made it to the final, I feel like Svedala had a better chance of beating the team who won than others did. Who knows, though? Maybe they would have finished 4th regardless of who coached. I can take at least some credit for signing three players who were selected to the all-star team. The squad lacked depth and breadth beyond those three, however. The club lost a couple of domestic players after the prior year, and couldn’t replace them.

I’m definitely curious as to what changed after I left. I haven’t heard a single word since my last match in Sweden from the manager. He took over after my departure. I’ve been in touch with a couple of players since, but stayed away from questions about the team. It wouldn’t have been right. The only squad difference was that one of the players who quit because of a new job during the first half of the season came back part-time. That was actually something I’d already arranged with her, though.

One thing that did annoyed me was that the Svedala manager’s name was submitted for Coach of the Year. He’s probably the one who put himself in. Regardless, it was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, he didn’t get it.

So what do I feel like I could have done better?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing was being more engaged as a kind of broad thing. At times it was a struggle for me to motivate myself to get in and provide the feedback I should have provided in training along the way. I just wasn’t as invested as I needed to be. That probably most played out in being more quiet than I should have been – in practices and during matches.

I’ve said before that I quickly realized at Svedala that the situation wasn’t the sort of longer-term developmental project I really wanted. I decided fairly early on that I was probably going to be one-and-done. That certainly influenced my investment level, which I should have recognized and fought to avoid happening.

This is a lesson that I plan on taking with me moving forward.

And on the positive side?

Beyond that, I certainly had the opportunity to continue developing my practice planning skills. In particular, I had to do a lot of creative work in terms of trying to find ways to challenge players of different capabilities at levels appropriate to each in a situation where I had a varying number of players – usually fewer than one would like.

Of course I also got more experience working in a different culture. You could say two cultures when you factor in that we played against Danish teams and in Denmark several times. That expanded upon my coaching at Exeter.

In terms of what I’m proud of, very high up is being able to develop the confidence level of our two Swedish pin hitters. It was one of my top coaching priorities at the start of the year. Both of them were in need of a major boost at the start of the year. I’m not saying it was an immediate improvement. Nor will I suggest there weren’t bumps in the road along the way. By mid-season they were both much improved, though.

I think I’d also have to say I’m proud of being able to maximize what we had in the squad. Obviously, we didn’t always get the results we could have gotten. We developed a way of playing that suited well the players we had, though. I was complimented on the team’s style of play a number of times, including by one of the most respected coaches in the country. Clearly we were doing something right!

The bottom line is that it was a worthwhile experience, even if the way it ended rankled.

And moving forward?

There are already things I’ve taken from the Svedala experience with me in to working at MSU. Mainly that has been in the area of developing practice plans through the Spring season. As we get into pre-season in August, though, there will be other areas. Squad integration, team management, scouting, and the like will come to the fore.

Of course, should I find myself in a coaching job hunt again, the Svedala experience will play a big role. I definitely learned some things that should help me find a good fit. One could say that’s already the case in my MSU job. More broadly, my time coaching at that level will combine with the exposure I’ve had to German professional volleyball the last couple years to give me a better understanding of things should I pursue projects related to European volleyball.

The bottom line is every experience has value in some fashion – if you let it.

I made a coaching mistake the other day

In hindsight, I think I made a personnel mistake in one of my Svedala matches. Of course there’s no way of knowing what would have happened had I acted differently. I just think I missed an opportunity from a couple of different perspectives.

Here’s the scenario…

We were away to the team second from bottom in the league (we’re currently in first). It’s a team whose only victories have come against the bottom team. We beat them 3-0 at home on the first day of the season.

A big focus for us was getting a clean 3-0 win. This is for two reasons.

First, we hadn’t done that in a while – about four months. The team joked about how we always seemed to want to play extra. At the time we led the league in sets played. The not so funny part of that is the extra play does take its toll. We had a very small squad (just 8 at the time). With 11 matches between then and March 6th, and then playoffs to follow, limiting the pounding on the bodies could only help.

The second reason is you never know when it might come down to a set differential tie break.

We won the first set 25-20. The second set had a kind of ugly start, but we pulled away after the 9-9 point and won 25-17. In the third set we went up 11-5 and 13-7 before allowing them to slowly claw back. They got it to 19-19. We eventually went back out in front 23-20, but again let them back in and only managed to win 27-25.

It had been my hope to try to get my second setter some setting time during the match, rather than just being used as a defensive sub for our OPP. During the match, though, I was fixated on having her set while in for the OPP. That would see our starting setter hit, which she is perfectly capable of doing (it’s something I’ve thought about being an option should we have an injury issue).

Not thinking of doing a direct swap of setters was my big mistake. It led to two things I regret about how the match went. One is obviously not getting the second setter in to set – and not even getting in at all during the second set because of how things played out. The other is that I think we lost an opportunity to spread the ball around to more hitters.

It’s that second point that really got me thinking upon reflection that I’d goofed. Our starting setter didn’t spread the ball around as much as I’d have liked. I understand that the hitters who didn’t get the ball as much (OPP and M2) weren’t putting the ball away while the others were. From a “we want to win” perspective, which I’m sure the setter was thinking, that’s perfectly fine. From an offensive development perspective, though, we needed the ball spread around more.

I tend to believe the back-up setter would have done more of that. Actually, that can be something of a weakness in her game. She tends to be a bit more egalitarian in her set distribution. In this situation, though, that might have been beneficial.

In many ways I was looking at the match as a progression of the development work we did in training the prior week (see my log entry). Unfortunately, I was overly fixated on the match action and desired 3-0 outcome at the time, and overlooked my options.

Need to file that experience away to keep in mind for the future.

A side story from Gran Prix

In this coaching log entry I talked about how my Svedala team did at Gran Prix in 2016. What I didn’t really talk about was some of what went on through the course of things when we weren’t on the court. Of course, as is always the case for tournaments like that, there were a number of side discussions with other coaches in attendance. All were interesting and engaging, as they tend to be.

One person I spoke with at a couple of different points was Volleyball Coaching Wizard Ismo Peltoarvo. At that time he was recently was named the Swedish Women’s National Team coach and was on-hand mainly in that capacity. After our match on Saturday, Ismo told me he really liked one of our Americans. She’s probably the league’s best all-around player in her position, so it’s easy to see why he’d say that.

When we were heading out to dinner that night I mentioned Ismo’s comments to the player in question, jokingly asking if she’d be interested in playing for the Sweden. That got her attention. She started asking our manager about what it would take to become a Swedish citizen.

Of course he joked the easiest way was to marry a Swede.

Without missing a beat, she asked if we knew of any eligible guys.

I mentioned the conversation to Ismo the next morning at breakfast. He smiled and said he’d take her in the team. πŸ™‚

Oh, and it was COLD in Uppsala, where they held the event. The temperature when we went out for dinner on Saturday night was close to 0 Farenheit (about -17C). It snowed on and off most of the weekend, though got a bit warmer on Sunday.

You can see the official tournament articles and videos at and/or on the Swedish Volleyball Facebook page.

Youth volleyball, Swedish style

One Sunday while coaching in Sweden I attended Svedala’s annual youth volleyball tournament. Over two sites and 8 courts the club ran several age groups, and both boys and girls. I spent the day on the site of the younger groups.Β In theory, this isn’t meant to be about particular age groups, but rather level of play. In practice, we’re talking generally 10s to 14s. Here’s a photo from the action.

Swedish youth volleyball in action

The rules at this level are different than what I’ve seen in other places.Β The matches are 4 v 4, which is similar to what I saw in England. As with England, they also play on a lower net. The difference is that in England they play on badminton courts while in Sweden they use full-sized courts. That may sound crazy for these age groups, but there’s a twist. They allow a bounce.

Here’s how it works.

Teams must play the serve normally.Β After that, the receiving team can let the ball bounce either after the first contact or after the second. A bounce is not required, however. From there on the bounce can come at any point, including immediately when the ball comes over the net. The team can only let the ball bounce once each time it crosses the net.

It was interesting to watch. There are definitely some pluses and minuses.

On the plus side:

– The players learn not to give up on the ball. A lot of balls that would otherwise be rally-enders remain in play because of the bounce allowance.

– There are more rallies, some of them quite long.

– The bounce, when used in what seems the most tactical way, creates an opportunity for players to generate more legitimate set-hit sequences. Specifically, a team can make a concerted effort to play a real first contact. They can then use the bounce to allow the “setter” to get into good position to set, which then tends to produce better balls for the hitters. I saw some pretty good swings as a result.

On the negative side:

– Allowing the bounce gives players an excuse to be a bit more passive than they might otherwise be in regular volleyball.

– Obviously, playing a bouncing ball is different than playing a normal pass, set, or hit. That means players are developing reading and movement patterns which will be of limited use in a real game.

One thing that is always an issue with young players in competition is they figure out pretty quickly that sending the ball back over the net fast limits the opportunities for you to make mistakes. In other words, players are incentivized not to play 3-touch volleyball. Sally Kus addressed this in her book Coaching Volleyball Successfully.

I didn’t notice that changing with the bounce rule, in particular among the most inexperienced players.Β The more experienced players did seem willing to try to develop a real attack. I don’t know how this developed. Maybe they realized that being able to use the bounce reduces the penal effect of a bad contact. Or it could be a function of decent coaching. Perhaps both.

Snow in Svedala

So it turns out they get Winter here in Sweden. Who’d have thunk it!? πŸ™‚

On Saturday I attended our 2nd team match in the afternoon. It had been raining a bit when I walked into the sports hall. When I walked out a couple hours later it was snowing big, fat, wet flakes. It’s the first of the white stuff we’ve seen in Svedala where I’m at, though they’ve had some up north already.

Fortunately, I had just made a very well-timed parka purchase – literally on my way to the gym. I didn’t know about the weather when I put it on after the match ended to start my walk home, but I quickly snuggled in when I saw the 15+ minute walk I was facing. It kept my upper half quite warm. Jeans don’t do much to keep out the wet, though, so my legs were freezing by the time I got home.

There wasn’t much in the way of accumulation on Saturday, but by the time I got up on Sunday morning things looked a bit different.

First Svedala Snow

I didn’t even bother going out on Sunday. Figured it was a good day to spend indoors.

When I did finally go out on Monday morning it was an experience I haven’t had in a few years. There was ice everywhere. It wasn’t overly cold – at least not with my new parka and years of living in New England – but I don’t recall it getting that cold during my three Winters in England. I definitely didn’t have to worry about slipping on all the ice while I was there.

And so begins coaching Sweden in earnest. We have our first northern away match coming up on Saturday.

I can only imagine how my player from Atlanta reacted to it all. πŸ™‚

My team had a long rally to start a match

When I coached in Sweden for Svedala, one of our matches started with a really long rally. It was a home match against a team from Denmark. Here’s the video of that rally.

For those who are interested, the Americans in the squad are #6 Mo Simmons (Clemson) and #12 Chelsey Bettinson (Washington State). Unfortunately, our starting setter Camryn Irwin (Washington State) was out with a back injury for this match. The setter for our opposition, Amager, is also American. That’s Jordon Fish who played for Virginia Tech (which means she played against Mo in college).

Yes, that’s Svedala’s home court. The ceiling is a bit low, but otherwise it was a decent place to play.

We said what!?

One morning when coaching in Sweden I had the experience of looking at my Facebook feed and noticing a piece from the Oresundliga page. It related to that night’s match between my team (Svedala) and the Danish side Amager. Said page linked to a Swedish newspaper story about the match. The reporter suggested we were expecting a 3-0 or 3-1 win. Supposedly, this came from our team manager.

Cue inward groan. πŸ™

I messaged said manager upon seeing the story and said, “Did you really tell a reporter that we’d win 3-0 or 3-1 tomorrow?

His response was that he never said such a thing. He told her that we beat Amager 2-1 in preseason and that we had thus far won our home matches 3-0. As it turns out, the conversation took place on a Thursday before our most recent Saturday home match. That match ended 3-1. He said, however, the reporter in question sounded like a fill-in who didn’t really know anything about volleyball.

Request to reporters:

Don’t make sh_t up. If you give the other team “locker room material” like that when we never said any such thing, we stop talking to you. I realize volleyball is not a high profile sport. Still, we deserve the respect of fair reporting.

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