Is volleyball business or entertainment?

This post is motivated on an article on the WorldofVolleyball site.

That article’s title is Volleyball – Entertainment or Business? My immediate response to seeing it was, “Yes.” The two are intertwined. Volleyball is an entertainment business. It’s just as the NFL is an entertainment business and the English Premier League is an entertainment business.

Obviously, I’m talking primarily about the professional and international level of the sport here. That is the main focus of the WoV article. That isn’t to say, though, that lower levels of the sport aren’t about entertainment either. The waters just get a bit muddied when talking about something like high school or Juniors. You could also add marketing into the mix when it comes to colleges and universities. Clearly, sports impact applications and attendance at schools.

Professional teams

The primary focus of the WoV article is on teams, specifically teams from Poland, excluding themselves from competing in next season’s CEV club competitions – Champions League, Cup, etc. The reporting goes that the clubs are doing so because they don’t feel like they will be strong enough to legitimately challenge to win. As a result, they would rather save themselves the expense. This is a similar sort of discussion to the one I brought up in Properly professional or just participating?

When I coached in Sweden, this sort of decision-making was very much going on for the clubs there. No doubt it will continue to be the case. For the most part they did not see enough value being derived from taking part in CEV competition (or NEVZA) to justify the expense involved.

Non-Professional organizations

And it’s not like professional clubs are the only one making these sorts of choices.

Clubs and teams at all levels make decisions all the time about whether certain competitions or matches makes sense. When I coached at Brown we made choices about pre-conference tournaments. They were based on likely recruiting potential (which is why were frequently went to California). College coaches regularly pick out-of-conference competition with an eye toward the level of competition and how it will help them achieve their season objective (e.g. helping their RPI for NCAA tournament inclusion/seeding). Juniors clubs evaluate tournaments to play in with regards to the level of recruiting exposure they will provide, among other factors.

It all comes down to a cost vs. benefit (at least perceived) analysis.

Make it make sense to stay in

My view with regards to CEV and the like is that they should be doing everything they can to bring the clubs from the lower level countries into their competitions. You want to make the sport more relevant and financially stronger? Then you need to expand its popularity in places where it doesn’t get the exposure you’d like.

Find ways to incentivize clubs to take part in your competition. The NCAA pays travel expenses for teams playing in its tournament. It also does things to try to minimize those costs and travel times through how it structures it’s tournaments. The CEV needs to look at the reality of the sport at the lower levels and find ways to make their competitions more inclusive.

And this obviously isn’t something for just the less competitive countries and leagues, as the Polish clubs seem to be demonstrating.

I’ll return to the point I made above. Volleyball is an entertainment business. A major part of any business is ensuring that is will be able to continue operating – which means this applies to non-profit organizations as well as for-profit ones. This is something every confederation, league, and club needs to understand.

Cementing my coaching reputation

In May of 2013 the Devon Ladies team I coached won the South West Championships at the end of my first season coaching in England.

2013 South West Championships

The players on the court for championship point shown above represented six different nationalities – English, Polish, Czech, Italian, Spanish, and Filipino. That’s a taste of the ethnic diversity of U.K volleyball. I figure I coached players from about 25 different countries in my time there.

That tournament win was really satisfying. I took over the Devon team midway through their National League Division 1 campaign that season. They were 1-7 at that point, sitting on the bottom of the standings. We turned things around and won seven straight after I took charge. It was tough going at the start, with lots of 5-setters, but we built momentum and handled teams easily later. Our only loss was on the very last day of the season. We dropped a 5-set match away to the team that won the league. We beat that same team in the finals of the South West Championships tournament to take the gold.

I couldn’t help but have a laugh at being able to do that. That probably sounds a bit odd, so let me explain.

From the first time I stepped on a court in England – even before I made the decision to go there for my PhD – I would hear whispers of, “That’s the American coach.” There was this sense of awe that seemed to follow me around during my first year.

It was very strange and kind of unsettling. I did not bring some big, amazing track record with me. By American standards I was pretty middle of the road, most likely. The fact that I was a coach from the States, though, apparently gave me an aura of volleyball majesty.

The reason I was laughing about winning South West Championships is because I couldn’t help but think doing it just tended to support people’s perceptions of my quality as an American coach. This was especially so given how the Devon team did in the league and how the Exeter University teams I coached did in BUCS competition that year.

Fortunately, that American aura thing eventually wore off as people got to know me. Any respect toward me thereafter was earned. That was a much more comfortable feeling.

Revisiting the 10,000 hour rule

Thanks to the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers, the so-called 10,000 hour rule came into broad use in the areas of achievement and talent. If you’re not familiar with the rule, here’s the gist. Basically, it suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of something. Tagged on to discussion of the rule is the question of the quality of those hours. There is a body of writing and research related to “deliberate practice”.

Well, according to this article, Gladwell misportrayed the research findings that were the basis for his book. Presenting academic and scientific papers in a mass-market friendly fashion can lead to this. The article goes on to explain the different ways there really is no such thing as a 10,000 rule.

Then there’s the question as to whether lots and lots of deliberate practice is sufficient to be a truly top performer. We as coaches know that’s not the only determining factor. In sports you need the physical attributes. I’m sorry, but if you’re 5’6″ you’re not going to be a hitter on the national team no matter how technically proficient you become at attacking.

The authors of the article do say Gladwell was spot on with one thing:

“…becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot.”

Do you think coaching falls into that category?

Talking serving aggression and effectiveness

volleyball serve

Alan at VolleyMetrics wrote a post talking about serving effectiveness. It discusses the trade-off between aggressive serves and error control. This is something I wrote about before, perhaps most directly in the Serving: Go for it or get it in? post.

In the 2016 NCAA men’s final match between Ohio State and BYU there was an interesting serving dynamic. Ohio State was aggressive throughout the match. They made a number of errors early on. Eventually, though, they settled down. That kept BYU under constant pressure. It reached the point where the Cougars really struggled to receive well. As you can imagine, OSU had a lot of transition point scoring opportunities.

Flipping things around, BYU actually seemed to get quite conservative in serve. They were pretty aggressive at the outset, but as the match progressed you saw more and more of the jump serve equivalent of lollipop serves. The result was good passing for OSU. That allowed them to run their MBs and score virtually at will.

Alan talked about this sort of trade-off in his post with respect to UCLA playing against BYU previously in the season. Do you rip your serves? Or do you take something off to not miss, knowing the opposition will be more effective in their sideout offense?

During the finals broadcast, commentary guy Kevin Barnett made comments about how the BYU program adhered to the Gold Medal Squared (GMS) philosophy. He described it as, among other things, one which espouses minimizing errors. I’ve yet to attend a GMS clinic or presentation, so I can’t speak to that personally. I couldn’t help but wonder if a bit of that might have been part of BYU’s downfall.

Now, before the GMS proponents reading this get upset, let me explain.

I do not blame the GMS philosophy itself here. I speak instead to the conservatism that seemed to take hold of BYU’s play as the match progressed. Some of this may have been from the GMS influence. It could just as easily have been a function of game planning. Maybe it was the psychological reaction of players and coaches to the pressure of the situation.

BYU was touted as statistically the best blocking team in the country in 2016. Certainly at the outset they showed that strength. They made it very hard on the OSU pin hitters by regularly putting up big triple blocks. I can’t help but wonder if that led the team to say something to the effect of “We’re blocking really well, so let’s keep the errors down and allow our block to do what it does best.”

And it might not have even been a conscious thing.

As I wrote about in Looking at serving and blocking together, there is a definitely link between the amount of pressure you put on a team with your serving and the effectiveness of your block. BYU’s block was a lot less effective when OSU was able to pass well and run their middles. So if there was that mentality of keeping the errors down, it backfired.

Surrounded by people, but lonely

Just finished another weekend spent recruiting. This will probably be the last trip for 2016. Once more it took me to the Dallas area. This time it was for the North Texas region’s national bid tournaments.

For those who don’t know, each USA Volleyball region is allocated a certain number of bids to Nationals at the different levels of play. These are additional bids to the ones that teams can earn through the national qualifying tournaments. The one I was at a couple weeks ago is an example (in the case of the Open division, qualifiers are the only way to get a bid).

On Saturday I was at the 17s tournament to watch pool play to evaluate prospects for the 2017 class. We’ve got two verbal commitments (both played), but have at least one position to sort out. The event was hosted at the Dallas Skyline facility. Here’s a rather random picture I apparently took at some point. There are 5 courts in use (I think they can do 8 total) – sportcourt over concrete. The banners on the wall are from recent National’s medal finishes.

college volleyball recruiting

Sunday I shifted to the 16s tournament as they went through brackets. Six courts used in this case. With the 17s I actually had a specific list of players to evaluate. In the case of the 16s, though, I was just there to make note of interesting potential 2018 recruits. It’s too early to contact them (though not by much). It was more about getting them on our list for later. Some won’t be realistic for our level, and I generally marked them down as such.

Of course watching a bunch of 15-16 year-olds and trying to project what they will be like as players (and people) two years down the road – and even further to the end of their college career – is a serious challenge. That’s the real trick of recruiting.

By yourself in a crowd

It’s funny recruiting at a 16s tournament because no one is allowed to talk to you. NCAA rules prohibit you talking to prospects during an event regardless of age. In the older age groups you can at least chat with parents. Not so with the younger ones. There weren’t many other college coaches there recruiting – at least overtly.  Some may have been there as club team coaches. Either way, not much in the way of peer conversation either. Being new to the area, I don’t yet know the region’s Juniors coaches. I was recruiting on my own, so there wasn’t really anyone for me to chat with.

Of course you can’t go to any events like this without seeing “those” parents. I saw one father who looked like any error was causing him physical pain. I felt like walking over to him and saying something to the effect of, “It’s a game played by kids, not life or death.” Not sure that would have done any good, though.

Libero in 5 or 6?

Here’s question that most volleyball coaches have to answer at one time or another. Do you use your libero to play in Position 5 or Position 6. That generally means address the case of the libero playing back row for the two middles. It is part, however, of a broader question of how to maximize your back court, both offensively and defensively.

The decision involves three primary considerations.

Back row attack
Generally, if you want your back row OH as an attacking option then you probably want them in Position 6. Because that usually (but not always) involves them taking up a deeper position, it means they are better able to get a good approach for their attack. It also provides a bit more attacking flexibility. This is especially true when working in combination with a front row quick attack (e.g. running the bic or back row quick). Having them playing in 5 limits things.

Second ball setter out-of-system
In the situation where the setter has to take the first ball, who takes the second? I wrote about the setter-out setting question previously. If the player in 5 is expected to take the second ball then you have to think about whether a back row attack is desirable in your scheme. If so, then having your OH setting isn’t desirable. There is also the question as to who’s going to set better ball to the front row players, which is more of a personnel question than a system one.

Best defender
The other consideration has to do with how you’re setting up your defense. Will most balls tend to go to 6 or to 5 in your system? Is there a meaningful difference in the digging ability of your OHs vs. your libero? If so, you may want to favor one or the other defending in the zone where more balls go. But keep in mind the question of the purpose of defense.

Different situations, different schemes
When I was coaching the Exeter women in my second year we played a system where we left one MB in and only used the libero on the other with both playing in 6. My reasons were because I had OHs who were strong reacting forward into the court (good for playing in 5), but not strong moving laterally (needed in 6), and we didn’t use them much for attacking back row as the MB and setter or OPP could all take those swings. When I was at Svedala our OHs played in 6 for attacking reasons.

The bottom line is that you need to think about your team and your players and go with what maximizes the effectiveness of the personnel.

Teach them how to throw

A big developmental issue with female athletes in volleyball is a tendency to hit from a body position where the hips are square to the net. I’m not talking about final position, but instead starting position. In other words, they don’t initiate their swing from a hips open position. They look more like this:


…than like this:


Granted, the balls are at different point in the two photos, but I think you get what I mean. If you don’t, watch your players hit. How many of them have the open shoulder and hips of the guy above when they jump? How many of them jump with hips and shoulders basically square to the net?

The square position many female players attack from (and I once wrote about a male player doing basically the same thing on a jump float serve) means they cannot generate as much power in their swing because they are not producing it from their core. It also means they are at increased risk of lower back and shoulder injuries. This comes from more back arching and trying to generate power from the shoulder respectively.

Volleyball Coaching Wizard Tom Tait in his interview describes the mechanics of hitting a volleyball as run-jump-throw. I contend that because girls don’t learn to throw in a mechanically correct fashion (foot opposite the throwing arm should be forward) at a young age like boys do, it leads to the square body posture that is so problematic in their hitting.

I have talked with a number of folks about the need for young female players to be taught how to throw early in their development. It’s something I recommended to those coaching the little ones at Svedala when I was there. I recently had that discussion with Ruth Nelson, another Wizard who is the developer of the Bring Your Own Parent program for kids ages 5 to 10. She was in total agreement.

I know some coaches have their players throw footballs back and forth as a shoulder exercise. This is generally just for older players, though, as they have big enough hands to hold and catch those bigger balls. For the little ones you’d probably want to use something smaller, like a tennis ball. I’ll leave someone more qualified than myself to address the mechanical differences.

Regardless, if you’re working with younger – or potentially just inexperienced – female athletes, it’s worth incorporating throwing time in your training. You will likely help them become more powerful hitters and reduce their risk of injury.

Coaching Log – May 2, 2016

This is an entry in my Midwestern State volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

The main gym was still not put back after the banquet, so we were once more in the secondary one. There were still three players out due to injuries, but we had a recruit on campus (was supposed to be two, but the other got sick) as well as a former member of the team from a couple seasons ago.

We started off with a series of games with the team split in half. It was basically a progression of 1 v 1 and 1-touch to 2 v 2 and 2-touch to 3 v 3 and 3-touch. The players rotated each time they sent the ball over the net. We finished that sequence with 4 v 4 back row (fixed setters, other rotating out after hitting) where you could only score earned points.

After that we split them up to have one group working on defense and the other doing some technical serving work focused on toss and contact. From there we progressed to a serve receive offense drill where the attackers on the receiving team had to get at least 5 balls to a target zone in a given time period.

We finished up with 6 v 6 that was a wash type game. This one was all based on serve reception. Basically, a team had to win two reception rallies in a row to earn a point. If, however, they passed perfectly and got the kill on the first serve, they earned the point straight way without having to do the second ball. Winning a rally earned the right to receive serve.

We actually reverted back to small-group sessions for this day. In the first one we had our setter, a defender, and two middles. Each group worked on their own specific needs (setting, passing, and blocking respectively). The second group featured two defenders and two net players, so it was serving and passing for the former, and again blocking for the latter.

This was the first time in a while that we were able to really have the staff closely working with only 1-2 players at a time. Lots of feedback. My personal focus was on setting in the first group and serving in the second.

Back to the team training, though we continued along with Tuesday’s themes in that we dedicated a lot of focus on passing, blocking, and setting with regards to feedback. We did some breakout worth with blocking on one court and passing on the other. After that, we brought them together to work on things in a unified fashion, during which I continued to work with the setter – primarily on her positioning.

We had two prospective recruits in the session with us. It ended up being a pretty intense, up-tempo practice. We started off with a sequence of small-sided games that eventually became a type of back court attack Winners 4s. We sandwiched rounds of servers vs. passers games around a narrow court version of Winners 4s with fixed setters and MBs.

The last part of the session was 6 v 6 play in a kind of modified version of 22 v 22. In this case we designated a position to be the point scoring hitter (e.g. MB). If that player got a kill on a first ball (receive ball or dug ball), the team automatically got the big point. Otherwise, the team winning the initial rally received down balls until either the designated scorer got a kill or they lost the rally. That means a team could receive multiple down balls.

The idea behind this game was to stimulate a couple of different things. Obviously, the first is getting the defending team to think about the degree to which they want to commit their block to the designated hitter. Another is the setter decision-making process in terms of knowing when to set that hitter and when they’d be better off going to someone else. Finally, it puts that hitter in a position of having to beat a team that knows they’re getting the ball.

We had a second pair of prospective recruits in this session. Again, game play was heavily featured. It started with a 4 v 4 back row game with fixed setters and rotating back court players. Again, servers vs passer games were mixed in to slow things down a bit.

The main feature was a variation on the game Baseball. In this case we retained the designated hitter idea from Thursday, with a twist. For the first time a team received free/down balls (meaning they won the serve receive rally) they could only score “runs” if the MB got a kill. Otherwise it was wash. The second time the designated hitter was the OPP, while the third was the OH.

Note that in this approach the OH probably will not be the designated hitter very often because in order for them to be the team would have had to win all three serve receive balls. That tends not to happen very much. So if you want the OHs getting the ball most, you’d want to put them first instead of the MBs.

Additional Notes
This was a busy week on the recruiting front with 6 prospects visiting campus following on from having spent last weekend evaluating players at the Lone Star qualifier tournament. We needed to squeeze them in because this was our final week of Spring training. Along the way we got our first commitment for the 2017 class.

Since we won’t be back in the gym until August, this will be the last of my updates for this academic year. I’ll start a new log for the 2016-17 cycle when we bring the players together once more for pre-season.

Sweden Coaching Log – Apr 29, 2016

Now that the Swedish season has ended, I wanted to provide something of a footnote to my coaching with Svedala.

Svedala managed to finish 3rd in the table at the end of the regular season. As you can see on the final table below, Engelholm was the clear top finisher. Only three points separated 2nd through 4th, and it was only three more points to 5th. Örebro was definitely helped in having the softer northern group schedule, as it put them in position to have home court through the semifinals.


Svedala’s 3rd place saw them matched up against Gislaved in the playoff quarterfinals, which they won 3-0. They then faced Örebro in the semifinals. That series went five, which each team taking a 3-2 victory on the road the second time around. As the higher seed, Örebro hosted the deciding match, which they won 3-0. The first two sets were tight, but the third not so much.

Engelholm won the other semifinal 3-0, putting them in the final vs Örebro. Svedala played for 3rd against Hylte/Halmstad. Engelholm went on to win the final 3-0. Svedala lost to Hylte to end up in 4th.

While it represents an improvement over last year, I think there is probably at least some disappointment in the club that the team didn’t finish higher than 4th. I’m sure they really thought making the final was a good prospect. No doubt it was tough to play in the 3rd place play-off after having lost in 3-2 in the semifinal series.

Oresund Liga
Svedala ended up finishing 2nd in the Danish/Swedish cross-boarder league. Here are the final standings:


Brøndby had already sealed up 1st place by the time I left Sweden and we were looking good for a top-3 spot. At that stage Engelholm was the other likely contender, but they obviously fell off the pace.

My young Swedish MB at Svedala was selected as the season’s Break Through Player. I think the fact that she had the opportunity to work with arguably the best middle in the league (the team’s American) was a real plus for her growth and development. The team’s American setter was nominated for Player of the Year, but not surprisingly was beaten out by the OPP from Engelholm.

The American MB was in the statistical Best Team for the regular season as the #1 in her position. The young Swedish middle ranked #4, so was in the second team. The American OH was #3 in her position. Officially, the setter ended up #2, but the player in the #1 spot wasn’t actually the starting setter for her team, so shouldn’t really count.

I held all year the Svedala had arguably the three strongest foreign players. That was borne out by the All-Star team selections in which they all were chosen. Interestingly, Hylte took three of the other four spots, with Engelholm’s OPP getting the remaining one.

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