A coach in a Facebook group once made the following comment.

When breaking down a skill coaches generally coach the last thing they see that was wrong. It is natural to do this but it is 100% backwards from what you should do.

In that discussion, I expanded the conversation to note that this goes beyond individual player skill. You must also think about it with respect to different elements of game-play.

Inexperienced coaches are like spectators in that they tend to fixate on the last action in a chain. In this way they are like doctors treating symptoms rather than trying to cure the disease.

An individual skill example

Consider a young hitter who spikes the ball long. The inexperienced coach sees the ball sailing with no topspin and quite often gives them an indication to snap their wrist.

Is that really the problem, though? Or is it just a symptom?

If you really analyze things you might come to realize this error was the result of low confidence (often the case for girls). While it might be true that the hitter didn’t put topspin on the ball – the last link in the chain – the error started with the fear of making an error. This probably resulted in a lack of aggression all the way through the hitting sequence, not just in the final element.

Talking to this hitter about wrist snap, therefore, is unlikely to improve their hitting.

A game-play example

Now consider a libero who just shanked a dig attempt.

The inexperienced coach will probably talk to them about their digging mechanics. A slightly less inexperienced coach might talk to them about their positioning. The experienced coach will know whether the block did its job properly, and if not, why?

Of course, the libero might have made a technical error. The experienced coach, though, doesn’t jump straight to that conclusion. They first consider all the lead up links on the chain to see if there was a breakdown earlier. That way they can actually address the root cause, which might have been something like the middle blocker committing to the quick when they were supposed to be in a read-and-react, leading to the libero being slightly out of position for the dig, resulting in a misplayed ball.

Don’t forget the read!

There are a lot of technical and tactical elements that make up the progression of a skill execution or piece of game-play. The thing that probably doesn’t get nearly enough attention, though, is reading.

The player who missed the dig may have been out of position because they didn’t read the play properly. A passer who got aced may have failed to read the server correctly.

Reading is a massive part of the sport. You not only have to train it along with everything else, you also have to make it part of your performance assessments. Don’t just think of a skill breakdown if a player makes an error. Consider a reading failure as well.

Train the skill and use tools

I can remember noticing my coaching vision expanding when I was a relatively young coach. It was almost like a physical feeling. Having that expanded coaching vision is something you must learn. It takes practice and experience.

How can you accelerate the process?

The big thing is to be intention about it – just like with any skill. When you see something go wrong, stop and think about what happened through the whole chain before giving feedback.

A tool that can really help here is delayed video. That will let you actually go back and watch rather then relying on what you saw live. There are all kinds of reasons you might not have gotten the full picture when watching live. And even if you did see it all, the video can provide confirmation as well as letting the players see for themselves.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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