Have you ever coached from a position of fear?

If you’ve ever coached a team in a meaningful competition, my guess is there were definitely some doubts in your head in at least the early goings. I’m not just talking about being nervous about the outcome. That’s a natural function of caring. I’m referring to being concerned about your ability to coach the team effectively. Maybe you felt that when you first started coaching. Maybe you felt it when you moved to a higher level of coaching.

My own experience

In my case, the instance of fear which stands out most in my mind was during my very first time coaching a team all by myself. At that point, my coaching experience had been limited to helping out with my high school team many years before. I had just returned to volleyball after grad school and had yet to begin coaching collegiate and club volleyball. I took on a team of high school aged boys. They were taking part in an annual Summer state tournament where six regions competed in a 3-day event. I had the team from tryouts through competition.

Tryouts weren’t all that demanding as I basically had to take all the guys who showed up. Weekly trainings were a challenge because of missing players. At least, though, they gave me the opportunity to assess the team and come up with judgements about strengths and weaknesses and style of play. That had to be adjusted just before the tournament due to an injury. Fortunately, I had the options to deal with it (see Problem Solving – Setting out of the middle).

Tournament time

I’d never seen this tournament before, meaning I didn’t really know the level of play, so I didn’t know where the team was at on a relative basis. I figured things out pretty quickly, though, once play began. And that’s where the fear came in.

In looking at the competition – including the defending champions who we played first of all – I realized in short order that my group of players was at least as good as any of the others. That put the fear in my head that the only reason the team might not perform to its capability would be because I messed up somehow.

Flipping that around to a more proactive mindset, that meant I needed to make sure I did everything I could to put the guys in a position to succeed. This primarily meant having the right line-up since there wasn’t a lot else in my control at that stage.

Recovering from a mistake

I definitely didn’t have the line-up right to start the tournament and realized it quickly. We went 1-3 in the four sets (two matches of two sets) we played the first day. It was a frustrating experience because we could easily have been 4-0. I made one line-up adjustment at the start of the second day – flipping two players in the rotation. Again, we had a frustrating match that ended 1-1, after which I had a meeting with the team that lead to one more line-up change, changing my second OH.

From that point on, we didn’t lose a single set. We went 4-0 in the rest of our pool play to take 3rd place, then swept through the semis and the finals 2-0 on the last day of the event. We won the gold medal in a really competitive match with loud support from the other teams (we were playing the defending champs, who everyone hated). My voice was completely shot from having to shout to be heard over the three days, but it was a welcome pain. 🙂

I guess my fears were unfounded. My experience over the years has tended to back that up, I suppose. I’ve only coached one more team to a tournament championship since then (though assistant coached two league winners), but I’ve definitely had teams that have done quite well given their relative talent level.

Still, at times I do have that old nagging concern about being not good enough. Perhaps I always will. If so, it will be something to drive me to keep getting better at my craft.

This reminds me of something from Frank Herbert’s book Dune:


I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Sorry to let my inner geek out here, but I’ve always liked that piece. Fear is the coach killer if we can’t turn it around into a positive.

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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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