I shared the following quote with my weekly newsletter readers, but wanted to talk about it a bit more, which is the purpose of this post. It comes from England rugby coach Eddie Jones, quoted by a soccer coach in the UK, then shared by Vern Gambetta via a LinkedIn post.

‘You cannot teach players to cope with every situation in the chaotic game environment. So, you want players in those chaos situations to self-organise. You have to, therefore, teach them how to self-organise. Teaching them to self-organise means that you are putting them into situations at training where they have got to work out solutions themselves. And as a coach, your job is to guide them to discover the right solutions to those situations. Telling them what to do (the solutions) prevents them from self-organising.’

Jones uses the phrase “guide them to discover”. I’ve talked before about this concept of guided discovery. It’s something that applies to both individual development, and the team perspective that is the subject of the above quote. In this post I’ll look at how we can accomplish it with our teams. This is related to the concept of Volleyball IQ, but at the group level.

Start with a problem

This concept of self-organization is ultimately about problem-solving. The group is presented with a challenge it needs to overcome. There are all kinds of different examples of this:

  • How do we stop the other team’s OH?
  • Their libero is digging everything close to them
  • We need to do a better job passing against that server
  • How do we neutralize their big MB?
  • We need to score more in transition

Any many, many others. I’m sure you could come up with several for your particular team. At its most basic level, just about every part of the game can be viewed in this context. Your job as coach is to identify a challenge/problem for the group. Early in the season, this will probably be broader in concept, as you may simply be getting the players familiar with playing together and seeing how leadership expresses itself. As time goes by, though, you’ll have more specific problems to address.

Structuring training

Once you’ve defined the focal problem you then must create the exercise structure for the team to develop one or more solutions. That means putting the team in a situation where the problem is presented, which we can call tactical solutions training. There are a few ways to do this, depending on the problem.

Ball initiation: How you initiate play can create the scenario you want. For example, sending the first ball to the setter automatically creates a setter-out situation if the challenge is out-of-system play.

Opposing team personnel: Adding to or altering the players on the other side lets you simulate a variety of situations. For example, adding extra pin blockers ensures pin hitters always have at least two blockers in front of them.

Altering the court: Making adjustments to the court provides all kinds of opportunities to create an array of challenges. For example, playing narrow court games reduces attacking options.

Scoring: There are lots of ways to encourage (or discourage) specific aspects by how you score things. Bonus points is an example of this. Another is defining only one way points can be scored (e.g. by a Middle kill) or removing one or more scoring options (e.g. OH’s can’t score).

Of course you can also combine these elements to create a specific scenario. You may need to do so in the case where the team isn’t recognizing the challenge as a collective and thus isn’t trying to find the right solution(s). This can happen when you’ve put them in too broad a framework, also when you don’t communicate what you’re after.

Guiding the discovery

While putting the team in the structure to present them with the desired challenge encourages things, you’ll probably want to nudge them along here and there to help the self-organization process. Notice I said “nudge”. The idea isn’t to give them specific solutions. It’s to help them find those solutions for themselves.

One subtle way to do this is in how you structure things in practice before you get to the ultimate problem-solving exercise. This is the build-up concept. One variation of that is to gradually progress an exercise by increasing complexity. Another is to work on pieces of what you’re after. For example, if you want to eventually work on out-of-system offense you could do separate drills earlier in practice where setters dig balls, liberos get setting reps (or whoever takes 2nd ball when setter-out), and pin hitters work on hitting high balls.

Once you’re in the final exercise it’s about getting the players to think in the direction you want (though preferably not too narrowly) and to encourage them. That can be accomplished through a combination of asking questions and providing feedback. Some of the feedback will inherently come from the structure of the activity itself (knowledge of performance). You will want to provide your own, especially encouraging the actions and thinking that goes in the direction you’re after. And on the topic of thinking, make sure to ask questions which get the players answering with their own thoughts on one or more solutions. Don’t ask them about a specific solution.

How long before you start offering solutions?

The idea of guided discover and self-organization is that the players figure things out for themselves. We want that because those lessons tend to stick most readily. What if the players just aren’t getting it, though? It happens. We don’t want them getting completely frustrated as that leads to shutting down.

Before you start handing out solutions, consider whether you’re asking too much of the group at that particular time. Maybe they just haven’t advanced enough yet. In that case, back things down a bit. See if you can work on a smaller aspect of the problem. It could be that working through the build-up process puts them in the right place.

If it’s something you believe they should be able to accomplish, think about providing a potential solution to part of the problem. I’ll use as an example The Hard Drill, which is essentially a kind of team pepper with an objective of some number of set-hit-dig sequences within a single rally. There are a variety of decision-making elements the group needs to get right to complete it successfully. You can help them along with one without giving them the whole solution. I would try to start with questioning/feedback first, however.

Training self-organization in general

I should note that you can train self-organization apart from in specific game situations. This is actually something that can be quite useful for you in identifying leaders, evaluating communication patterns in the group, and generally getting the team used to working together to solve problems.

I’ve seen pretty funky examples of this in team warm-ups with some of the pro and national team trainings I’ve attended. I think there was one where a pair of players had to play the ball with a yoga ball at some point and end up with the ball in a basket after 3 contacts. It took them a little bit to figure out the best order to do things. Then it just became a question of precision.

A warm-up activity I like to use with my teams is what I call Brazilian, which is a 2-ball volley tennis. There are two balls involved for at least part of each rally, so it’s not any kind of real game scenario. It does force players to problem-solve, though. At the beginning of the season it’s usually pretty ragged. As time goes on, though, you can see them work out court coverage and tactics. Plus, they get really competitive.

So get creative!

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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