A while back, Mark from At Home on the Court flagged an article (no longer available) about then US Soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann on his Facebook page. It is critical of the American sports culture of having overly controlling coaches (and parents) in terms of what’s happening on the court/field. Basically, they aren’t willing to just allow players to learn and figure things out for themselves. It got me thinking about my own coaching philosophy and how I developed as a player myself.

I only ever played one season of volleyball with a proper coach. That was back when I was in high school. When I was on the club team at university the captain ran training. Occasionally, the women’s team coach gave us some input. For one season we had a little help from one of the local high school coaches. I played in a lot of open-gym sessions and all summer long played doubles. As a result, I was largely self-taught as a volleyball player – figuring things out for myself along the way.

Maybe that contributes to my own coaching style. I tend to shy away from giving my players specific instructions during play. I noted this in my post about calling service targets. Instead, I see my roll as more trying to help them recognize situations. I want them to come up with the solutions on their own. Those lessons are much more likely to stick than if I tell them what to do.

Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with my development as a volleyball player. Maybe it’s more to do with my general orientation as an educator. When I was in my high school Computer Science class I once spotted an error in the program the teacher wrote on the board. I raised my hand and told him the program wouldn’t work. He looked and spotted the mistake. Then he laughed and told the class, “John will make a good teacher because he makes you figure out your mistakes,” or something to that effect 🙂

Circling back … is it an American thing to be overly controlling in a sporting context? I need more evidence. You have to look at the way coaches in the popular sports in other nations work. In the US, football and baseball coaches are extremely involved from a play-to-play basis. It’s different for basketball and hockey where the action is more continuous. Plus, we have to consider the training context as well as the competitive one.

In any case, it’s also worth thinking about adding unstructured play.

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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.

    4 replies to "Let them figure it out for themselves"

    • Oliver Wagner

      On my A level course I met two very interesting nerds. They are scouts for pro league teams in Germany. One of them told me about a science project he is involved in, in which they develop a computer program that once fed with enough relevant data (scouting material) can predict what for example the opponent’s setters choice would be if we serve to a particular passer or spot. Having that information I think volleyball could become much more like football, don’t you think? At least coaches who (like you and me) think now that the team has to figure it out for themselves will be presented with a complete new choice…

    • John Forman

      Being able to predict where a setter is going to go with a ball based on different situations is hardly a new thing in volleyball. That’s what scouting tendencies is all about. I can remember watching a UCLA – USC match last year and hearing the UCLA assistant coach call “Slide-2” from the bench every time he saw USC in a certain situation on serve receive to let his side know what play was coming at them. When I was coaching at Brown one year I observed a clear pattern of the Yale setter’s in the way she set the ball coming from 1 vs. a ball coming from 5 or 6 which we exploited.

      A computer program may make developing those scouting reports faster and easier (which I’m all for), but I can’t see it moving volleyball to the the point of a game like football. If nothing else, there’s very little transition element in football. The vast majority of it is individual discreet plays so they have the opportunity to stop and call a new play. Sure, we volleyball coaches can call serve receive and/or base transition plays from the bench in between rallies, but are we going to be yelling plays from the sideline during the action? I don’t see that as being particularly efficient since adding that step in will actually add time to the processing and dissemination.

      • Oliver Wagner

        Probably I couldn’t explain myself good enough. This program is much more than predicting some situations. They think that they can predict the outcome of a complete match. I can’t say that I know much of the project, but to me it still sounds like a major change to our sport (at the highest level only, of course).

        • John Forman

          Can’t help but wonder if the existence of such technology would create a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty in that by measuring a future match you change the outcome. 🙂

Please share your own ideas and opinions.