An article was posted on VolleyCountry a while back which posed an interesting question. Who is the Best Volleyball Coach in the World? The author then lists Bernardinho (Brazil), Eugenio George Lafita (Cuba), Nikolay Karpol (Russia), Zé Roberto (Brazil), Julio Velasco (Argentina), Viacheslav Platonov (Russia), and Givi Akhvlediani (Russia). There are probably a few different ways a discussion on this subject can go. I want to make a couple of initial points, however.

First, the question was “Who is…” not “Who has been…”. That means present tense. Some of the names on the list are no longer with us. Picky minor point.

Second, the author doesn’t actually answer the question in terms of quality of coach. Instead, he looks at it in terms of success at the international level. From that perspective it’s no wonder why the list is dominated by Brazilians and Russians. They are big countries with long histories in the sport. The funny thing is, the article starts with the following observation:

“There are several factors apart from the luck for being a good trainer and Head Coach of any sport. Sacrifice, dynamism, responsibility, creativity, enthusiasm and leadership have to be joined by the knowledge and experience acquired across the years.”

That’s all good. I doubt there would be too much argument. Here’s where he goes off the rails, though:

“But to be the best, you must possess other benedictions. First you must rely on a good program of development, besides high-level athletes with exceptional capacities that they should compare with those of their adversaries, and finally that these players and your staff, believe in the work that is carried out.”

I’m sorry. He lost me there. Luck and “benedictions” have nothing to do with whether someone is a great coach.

To my mind, akin to something John Wooden said, great coaching is about getting the absolute most out of what you have. That means players, assistant coaches, facilities, equipment, administrative support, etc. There is always the tendency to think in terms of coaching from an on-the-court perspective. Anyone with experience, though, will tell you true excellence as a team coach is at least as reliant on the off-the-court stuff. Moreover, it’s all inter-related.

Great players do not make great coaches, just winning ones

You’ll notice in my definition of great coaching I didn’t say anything about having the best players. It’s quite easy to look like a good coach when you have loads of talent in your team (see this post). Outside observers are fixated on wins and losses. Here’s the thing, though. Winning with great players doesn’t make you a great coach any more than losing with poor players makes you a bad one. History is full of examples of coaches whose teams won in spite of them and who’s success faded once the players brought in and developed by the prior coach start to rotate out.

History is also full of examples of coaches of who did a great job coaching in bad situations. I’m talking about coaches of teams somehow disadvantaged relative to their competition. They are at much smaller schools or in smaller communities (think big-market vs. small-market professional teams). They are in economically disadvantaged areas. Their school doesn’t have athletic scholarships, but others in their league do. They have higher admissions standards and/or more rigorous academic requirements. We tend not to hear as much about the great job these coaches do, though, because they aren’t collecting loads of silverware and amassing a big pile of wins.

We see it in professional sports. The clubs with the most money, who thus can attract the best players, are consistently top of the league. Can we judge those coaches as the best because they are able to consistently win? Or are there better coaches lower down the rankings whose names aren’t always in the press because they simply don’t have the resources available to compete with the big boys?

I was in a situation like that myself. My 2013-14 women’s university team reached the national semifinals. Is my coaching effort for that year devalued because we didn’t win the title? I should hope not. My team had no players on athletic scholarships and the two top teams were chock full of them! There was simply no way we could compete. Third place was literally our best possible finish in those circumstances.

This is not me saying that having the best players takes away from the quality of the coach of a top team. It’s just easier to appear to be a great coach when you have the most talent and win on a regular basis. It’s harder when you’re left trying to make something out of far inferior talent. We simply can’t use final standings as our metric.

I will use myself again as an example. The men’s team I coached in 2012-13 finished 8th among U.K university teams. The 2013-14 team did one better, finishing 7th with less talent and experience. On the face of it, you might think I did a better coaching job the second year than the first. In fact, I would tell you it’s the other way around for a few different reasons. The second year’s team had a healthy dose of luck to even reach the last eight. In comparison, one little bad period of play probably cost the first year’s team 5th or 6th.

Great coaches tend to be specialized

There’s a specialization factor to consider when pondering the question of coaching greatness. Judging is not always an apples-to-apples comparison. Coaching professionals, for example, is very different from coaching a bunch of U12s. The pro coach may be great in their environment but fail miserably trying to work with the kids. That wouldn’t make them a bad coach any more than simply being in the professional game makes them a great coach. They became specialized by experience, temperament, and other influences. We can say the same about coaching male vs. female athletes, or being in a school structure vs. a club, among other dividing factors.

A narrow example of this specialization is the coach who is capable of operating at the top of the sport where the pressure, scrutiny, and ego issues are major challenges. It does not suit everyone. Many considered David Moyes an excellent coach while at Everton. He struggled mightily when moving to Manchester United, though (granted, it may not have been all about him). The successful coaches or managers at the elite level may not be the best trainers of players, but they are good in other critical areas that allow them to succeed.

The point is we each tend to have a niche in which we best operate. That doesn’t mean we can’t do a good job in other roles, though. It’s just that we probably have only one or two types of coaching at which we are our very best.

Who’s the greatest volleyball coach?

So bringing things back around to the list of best coaches, maybe that does represent the cream of the crop – at the international level. I’m hesitant to go along with even that, though. To really be able to make a fair judgement we need to compare coaches in a way that takes things beyond their own control out of the equation – like the athlete talent pool. After all, it’s much easier to be successful in terms of championships, medals, etc. when you have a massive population from which to select players – like Russia or Brazil (or the U.S.) – than if you come from a small island nation, for example. On that basis, Lafita may be the the best of the offered names. He achieved a lot with a relatively small set of resources.

Where, though, would you rate something like Audrey Cooper’s leading of Team GB to its first ever win in the Olympics in 2012? Or other coaches doing something highly significant for their national program, but which amounted to barely a ripple on the world stage? I think we need to be able to answer that sort of question before we can truly get to the point of judging relative coaching greatness and what it means to be an elite coach.

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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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