Archive for Volleyball Coaching Stories

Sometimes the wheels just come off

Once, when I coached at Exeter, I witnessed one of those seemingly inexplicable events which sometimes happen in volleyball. The university men I coached took on the defending league champions (and odds-on favorites that season) in a home match. The opposition was depleted by injuries and were a bit ragged to start the match. We were able to jump on them and take a relatively comfortable first set win (best of three).

Then the wheels absolutely came off.

The second set saw us make just about every error imaginable. Free balls were sent out of bounds. Hitters tipped the ball straight out of the court. Lack of communication caused defensive errors. The setter dumped a ball wide. Hitters tried to power balls low through double blocks, with predictable results. At one point, during a timeout, I told the guys it was like there was a force field on the other side of the court the way the balls we were playing over were flying long or wide.

I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Once, as coach of a 16-and-under girls team in the Regional Championship Juniors tournament during the pre-rally days we were 4-0 in pool play (played 2 sets against each other team) and were facing the other top team. We proceeded to lose the first set 15-0. Then, we turned around and won the second set fairly comfortably. Why did this happen? The girls were totally stressed out in the first set. They were thinking about winning the pool and it got them all tight. After that I focused almost 100% on keeping them loose and having fun. That team progressed to the semifinals, losing to the eventual champions.

In fact, even in the prior season the Exeter guys had a similar scenario against this same competition. Neither team was at full strength and in an ugly match we went up 1-0, then had a horrible second set. That pretty much did them in, as they lost 1-2.

Now, before I get on to what happened in the third set of this particular match, I should talk a bit about the line-up. I actually goofed before the first set and put the line-up in 3 rotations off from what I’d intended. Simple mistake of writing the numbers in with the wrong net orientation. We’ve all made silly mistakes like that at one time or another. Going into the second set I corrected things to the originally intended line-up. The idea there was to put our bigger MB along the front when their best OH was at the net. Clearly, it didn’t accomplish anything, so for the deciding set I switched back.

We actually got off to a good start and were up 10-6 or 10-7. Then things got tough again. At one point we had consecutive tentative errors in a the form of a serve into the net and a ball hit long. They allowed the other team’s best server to get back on the line and rip off a string of hard jump servers that did us in. We battled and were at 14-14, but couldn’t finish it off.

So what happened?

Fear took over. Simple as that. A clear indication of that is the change in our serving. In the first set we were putting them under pressure but in the latter parts of the match the serves became less aggressive. I’m not saying this was the only thing. We needed to do a long list of things better. That underlying psychology was the biggest factor, though.

Playing time thoughts from Cup weekend

This is the story of my university of Exeter teams playing in the Volleyball England Student Cup in 2013. In particular, this was the qualification phase. That’s a set of 1-day events. Your qualification was decided by your pool finish and those of others from that event and the other ones taking place at other times and/or locations. The ladies played on Saturday and the guys on Sunday. On paper at least, the draw gave the men a significantly better chance to advance than the women. That dictated different approaches to how I handled the teams.

For the women, I was always going to give the main starters a lot of play. I wanted to keep them improving their individual and team psychology. This is stuff mentioned in my coaching log entries. At the same time, though, there was ample opportunity to work additional players into the line-up. I had 10 on the team in total. They all played in at least part of three of the five matches we had in total. I regularly mixed players around without concerning myself too much with whether it made for a stronger or weaker line-up.

I should say it was a hard day for the team. They played 4 straight matches with only an additional 5-10 minutes of break added between matches 3 and 4. Then they had a set’s worth of down time before the 5th match (all were 2-sets to 25). The last match was against a poor opposition. I sat several starters and had others playing in different positions to try some things out.

On the day we lost 0-2 twice, had two 1-1 splits, and won 2-0 once. Officially that worked out to a 2-3 overall match record.

The guys has a much easier schedule. They played 4 matches (pool of 5), with a match break in between each of them.

For the men I needed to be more focused on trying to get wins – and having a sustained period of seeing them in action as I’d only coached them in one match prior. The first match – against the team which ended up winning the group pretty easily – was a struggle. The attitude wasn’t good and the offense wasn’t working. The captain and one of the senior players suggested a couple of changes based on what they’d seen in recent South West league play, so I moved the setter to OPP, brought in the second setter, and swapped in a different M2. We played weaker teams after that, but it was definitely a much more dynamic attack from there on.

I will confess that a couple of subs I made might have cost us a shot at advancing in the Cup as one of the better 2nd place teams. Because matches were just 2 sets, the way they determined a winner in the case of a 1-1 result was total points. On two occasions, after we won the first set we then scored enough points in the second set to win the match, so I put in the second string players. Once that might have cost us a set as it ended up 25-27. In the other perhaps it meant not winning by the margin we could have.

I would have liked to have given some of the guys more time. Everyone played at least a bit. Given the trip’s length, it would have been nice for everyone to have at least as much time as I could with the women.

Playing time is definitely one of those things we coaches struggle with on a regular basis. At least we do when in a competitive rather than purely developmental environment. The need to go for results tends to create conflicts. In that regard, having smaller rosters can be quite useful. Tough to keep players 10 and up happy when there is only so much court time to go around.

Required volleyball reading?

I did the last of my planned collegiate program training visits on Wednesday, this time at UCLA. Interestingly, when I got to the gym ahead of their training session I found them doing a review/discussion of the book Crucial Conversations. Assistant coach Stein Metzger told me it was something they were looking to use to improve on the communication front as that was seen to be a problem with the team last year. I haven’t read the book before myself, but it’s a best seller so clearly quite a few others have done. Might just give it a look to see what’s what.

I’ve got just about a week left in the States. While I don’t have any plans on visiting any more schools and their practices, I may yet get a bit more volleyball in before I head back for England. The University of Wisconsin will be playing at Pepperdine on Saturday evening. Pepperdine is supposed to be a beautiful campus (located in Malibu), so I’d like to go just to have a look. I happen to also know the Wisconsin coach from my days at Brown when he was coaching at Albany and they came to one of our tournaments. He’s definitely moved up in the world since!

I may also make a trip to the famous Manhattan Beach. I’ve been told there’s a fantastic little Mexican food joint there. Oh, and it’s known for some pretty good beach volleyball action too. 🙂

I think once I have some time to let everything settle and can reflect I’ll write a post looking back on my 5 campus visits and the different things I observed. Look for that when I get back.

Left the land of volleyball giants for a spell

Two days in near San Diego were a breath of fresh air, so to speak. It was four days at USC where the players made me feel like a shrimp, and Long Beach State, which isn’t too far behind. That made a nice change of pace visiting with my coaching friend Andrea Leonard at Cal State San Marcos. The team was ranked #20 in the NAIA preseason poll (the NAIA is an alternative US collegiate system to NCAA). Even still, those are players of mere mortal stature. No 6’4″ and above (there’s a bunch of 6-footers on the roster, but that’s more a function of typical volleyball height inflation than reality). In other words, I got to spend two days watching volleyball played much closer to what I saw day in and day out in England.

What that means is I saw a team where developmental needs are paramount. Andrea had a team with 11 new players out of 19. There were certainly some useful players on the San Marcos team. At that level the play, though, is dominated by scramble plays more than high powered attacks and massive blocks. It’s fun to watch the elite teams at work. The reality of coaching for most coaches, however, is that we do our work with non-elite teams. Of course that’s not to say we can’t learn things from how the coaches of elite level teams operate. That is exactly why I went on my little volleyball tour.

On Wednesday I visited UCLA, (ranked 12th in the preseason poll). That was my last practice viewing. I also talked some sand volleyball with Stein Metzger. I took in a match over the weekend as the NCAA Division I season kicked off (Wisconsin at Pepperdine), but no more training sessions after that.

Technical Coaching at the Top Level

This update comes just after I completed phase three of my summer volleyball adventure. It featured two days worth of observing Long Beach State going through the last of their 2-a-days for the 2013 season. Coach Gimmillaro (now retired) is well known as a very technical coach. He spent many years producing coaching videos and doing clinics all over. His training sessions those two days were no exception.

In particular, ball control technique was a major focus of his in the gym. It all starts with the unique warm-up Long Beach used – both in training and pre-match. Here’s a sample of it:

It definitely didn’t stop there. Coach Gimmillaro was very active and hands-on in working with his players. He got them playing both serve receive passes and dug balls in a very specific fashion which focused on footwork and platform.

I chatted with Coach about the Long Beach sand program implementation (they won the 2013 National Team Championship). We also talked jump float serve mechanics, some volleyball business stuff, and a few other things. He even expressed a willingness to travel to England to run a clinic if there was an interest in doing so (I was coaching Exeter at the time).

Naturally, I got some drill and game ideas from watching training, which I have shared since. It is worth noting, though, that there was very little actual variety in the training sessions. The clear dominant focus was on really working serving and passing – building the foundation for everything else.

First day of the US volleyball adventure

As I mentioned a little while back, I’m in the US for the rest of August and the early part of September. That started at the University of Rhode Island on Wednesday, where the team is in the early part of their preseason. I think they got things going with 2-a-days on Friday. If you’ve read my bio, you may recall that I mentioned coaching at URI. That was back during 2000-01. The head coach from then is still running the program and one of my former men’s volleyball club teammates from my URI undergraduate days is the Associate Head Coach these days.

It was a really enjoyable day being at the old haunts, watching the team go through its two training sessions and getting to talk lots of volleyball stuff with my fellow coaches. I got plenty of ideas for drills and game scoring systems which I’ll share in future posts. I’ve got a couple more days hereabouts before heading off to L.A. for the next part of the adventure.

My August Volleyball Coaching Developmental Traveling Plans

Back in Summer 2013 I planned a trip back to the States for August. In part it was my plan to get in some academic meetings in support of my PhD work. Mainly, though, I was looking at it as an opportunity to reconnect with the US collegiate volleyball game. I was away from it since the end of 2006. I watched a number of matches on television in the interim. Aside from attending a UCLA vs. Standford match in September 2011 and a Harvard vs. Princeton match later that season, however, I was out of the gym entirely for nearly 6 years.

A big reason for that was the feeling I needed to concentrate on my new corporate job for a while. My concern was I wouldn’t be able to resist the coaching urge if I didn’t stay away. Even doing so, there were times when I felt the pull to get back into it. Given how strongly everything came back when I started coaching the Exeter teams in 2012-13, I think I was correct in my assessment.

Now, with the coaching bug fully infecting me, I looked at this trip back to the States as an opportunity for some professional development and networking. The plan was to spend a couple of days with a few different teams as they go through their pre/early-season training.

Two significant programs on the plan
The two schools I knew from the start I’d go were the University of Southern California (USC) and Long Beach State (properly known as California State University at Long Beach – CSULB). You may know Long Beach State from one of it’s most prominent alumnae, Misty May-Treanor. She was a setter in her collegiate playing days.

The coaches of those two programs are among the legends in the game. Mick Haley at USC rose to prominence when is University of Texas team became the first non-West Coast squad to win a volleyball NCAA Division I championship. He won two titles at Texas, and then two more at USC. He had with four years as coach of the USA women’s national team (up to the 2000 Olympics) in between. Before Texas he was a very successful Junior College coach as well.

Brian Gimmillaro at Long Beach has 3 national championships to his credit as well, and has long been one of the leading lights in coaching education. He readily shared his methods through videos and seminars for many years. His 1998 team became the first ever to go undefeated for a whole season (36-0).

I also arranged to meet up with Stein Metzger. That year he coached the UCLA Sand Volleyball team and was an assistant for the women’s indoor team. Stein played on the pro beach tour and has coached a number of other pros (including Devon’s own Denise Austin).

Others to be determined
A few other schools got added to the list later, but that was all still in the works.I provided updates when things got finalized. I also did post updates from the road to share what i saw and heard.

Needless to say, I was really looking forward to this trip – and not just for the SoCal sunshine! 🙂

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