Coaching Log – Jul 17, 2015

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

Well, I’m now less than a week away from being in Sweden for my initial visit. That means my focus is on the upcoming move – packing and otherwise preparing. I was also busy traveling to and from an academic conference in Glasgow, which kept me occupied for the better part of three solid days. I did do a couple of coaching-related things the past week, however.

As I mentioned in last week’s update that I would be doing, I had a conversation with the second of our American signings – the middle, Chelsey Bettinson. As with the others, it was mainly a start at getting to know each other. She inquired as to my preferred blocking scheme. She did a lot of swing blocking at Washington State. I told her I haven’t made any decisions yet as I need to get a look at the team and players to see what I think will end up working best. It’s basically the same thing I said to Camryn when she asked me what my plan was for the offense. I don’t tend to have one system I try to play to, but instead look to try to maximize what the squad has to offer.

The other thing I continued to do was player evaluations. We’re still looking to fill the third foreigner slot with an outside hitter. The Sports Director for Svedala sent me a number of players to look at to that end.

In my next entry I’ll be able to give you some initial impressions. I’ll arrive in Sweden on Thursday!

Why coaches fail

The other day Mark from At Home on the Court, pointed out a blog post which offers 10 reasons why coaches fail.

  1. Compromising
  2. Lack of belief in themselves
  3. Copying others
  4. Relying too much on learning only from within
  5. Relying too much on emotion
  6. Using the same program over and over
  7. Failing to engage their athletes
  8. Lack of persistence
  9. Lack of vision
  10. Not spending enough time maximizing their strengths

Mark said he agrees with #2 through #9, but would need to have a conversation about #1. I definitely agree with him on #1. There needs to be more clarity on what exactly is meant by “compromise”. If the conversation is about compromising your values and the like, then fine. If it extends to others areas, you can run into some problems.

For #3 I would say there’s a difference between copying and modeling. Copying implies just doing exactly the same as someone else. Modeling is more about looking to incorporate elements of what another person does into what you do. Yes, you want to look to adapt successful methods you come across, but you have to do it in your own way within the context of your coaching situation. Very rarely do things work when simply ported over.

The Volleyball Coaching Wizards project very much speaks to #4. All the coaches we’ve interviewed thus far have talked about interacting with others as a major factor in their development.

The idea that what has always worked will continue to do so is the idea of #6. Things change all the time. Ask any coach who’s been around for any length of time. In my own volleyball coaching life I’ve seen a change from sideout to rally scoring, the introduction of the libero, a rise in the importance of back row attacking, jump float serves, and numerous changes in tactical applications – not to mention having coached different genders, age groups, levels, and cultures.

Another one worth talking about is #10. I wrote a bit on the subject of whether you should focus on improving on weaknesses or concentrate on your strengths.

Learning from mistakes rather than fixating on them

A while back Mark Lebedew via his At Home on the Court blog introduced the idea of coaching failures. I gave Mark a bit of stick about not actually talking about any of his own failures (no, he’s not the “unnamed coach” referenced). Mainly he took an “even the greatest coaches screw up sometimes” angle to the piece. It got me thinking about my own coaching failures, though. I’m sure that was Mark’s real motivation.

Here’s the thing. I’m struggling to remember any of real consequence.

I’m definitely not a perfect coach!. For one thing, I’ve made line-up submissions errors on a much too frequent basis. One of the more amazing experiences of my coaching career related to that happened at the 2014 BUCS Final 8s. It was the Exeter men against Bournemouth in the last round of pool play. In this case, I actually put in the line-up correctly. Somehow, though, I managed to use the slip for Set 2 for the first set, and then used the Set 1 slip for the second. That got the down ref all turned around (he wasn’t the greatest to begin with). It was a huge mess that resulted in a major delay – to the point where the two teams just started playing a little cooperative game while the officials sorted it out. 🙂

In terms of something that I look back on and think “that costs us the set/match,” though, nothing jumps out. For sure there were times in the moment when I had a thought along those lines – shouldn’t have started in that rotation, should have flipped my OHs, should have changed starters earlier in the season, etc.

I think the issue with that kind of stuff is that all we really are able do is try to make the best decision we can at the time. After the fact we’re going to look back with additional information, making it easy to think “I should have….” but that’s not really useful, and I tend not to let myself go down that path. Once the decision is past, I can only move forward and deal with things as they are. Later, I’ll examine my original thought process to see if there were any faults with it, but  I look at that as a learning process rather than a judgmental one.

Maybe that’s why the mistakes I for sure have made in my coaching don’t really stand out in my head. I don’t fixate on them.

Or maybe I just have selective recall. 😉

Coaching Log – Jul 10, 2015

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

Last week I talked about being offered the use of the apartment of one of the returning players when I have to move out of my place in England (she’ll be up north with her family for the Summer). That arrangement has been made. I’m going to fly to Copenhagen on the 23rd, where the club’s Sports Director will pick me up and drive me across the bridge in to Sweden and on to Svedala.

I’m not entirely sure what will happen from there. The club is still working on making arrangements for my housing. Since I won’t be paying rent in England, I’ve offered to help cover any expense for August since technically my contract doesn’t start until September. If they can’t find anything until September 1st, though, it shouldn’t be a big deal since I’m planning to spend most of August in Germany.

Regardless, I’ll be looking to use this initial stint in Svedala to start to learn my way around town, get to know the folks at the club, and do whatever administrative stuff needs doing. Of course I’ll also look to meet up with any of the players who will be in the area at the time. I think that’s most of the returners.

Filling out the squad
I found out on Monday that one of the “package” players we were expecting to sign has put pen to paper on her contract. We were just waiting on the other player to do likewise. That happened on Wednesday, or at least that’s when I heard. The official announcements have been made, so I can now provide some of the details.

One of the players is Camryn Irwin, who played for Washington State. She is a 5’11” (180cm) setter who ended here college career in 2013 with nearly 3400 assist, which is good for 4th on the school’s career list. Camryn spent the second half of the 2013-14 season playing for ASKO Steg-Linz in Austria. I spoke with her last evening. She was a volleyball commentator during the 2014 women’s college season, but assures me she’s continued to train and workout while finishing up her degree requirements. The plan was to return to pro volleyball for the second half of last season, but nothing worthwhile developed. She also said she’s read some of the this blog. Hi Camryn! 🙂

The other new signing is Chelsey Bettinson, a 6’1″ (185cm) middle who is a former teammate of Camryn’s at Washington State. The two have been long-time housemates. Chelsey just finished her senior year where she was second on the team in both kills and total points, and was second in the PAC-12 in blocks. Having a combo pack of a setter and middle with lots of experience working together definitely has meaningful benefits. I’ll speak with her later today.

Here are their smiling faces. I am going to have VERY blonde team! 🙂

camryn and chelsey

That leaves one more foreigner spot to be filled. I was told an American player we had offered a contract to has decided to coach instead, so our focus is shifting to others who remain available.

Coaching leadership differences between the genders

During my Volleyball Coaching Wizards conversations I’ve spoken with coaches who have worked with both male and female players. I always make a point of asking each of them how they approach the two genders. Is there any difference in their coaching? What’s been interesting is that many have responded that they don’t really change anything.

One of the early influences on my own coaching was Anson Dorrance. He’s the long-time women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. He started off on the men’s side and for a while coached both men and women. As a result, he’s got some very interesting observations on the differences in leading the two groups. They tend to disagree with the “I treat everyone the same” idea. Check out this discussion of his on the subject (hat tip to volleyballcoaching101)

One of the things I can’t help but wonder about coaches who claim they are the same coaching male athletes and female ones is if there really are differences they just don’t recognize. I know that I am different coaching men than coaching women. It’s not an intentional thing for the most part. I don’t consciously say I’m going to have this demeanor on the court with the men and this other demeanor with the women. It just sort of happens.

Listening to Anson, the other thing I got to wondering was if coaches tend to niche themselves based on whether their personality better suits working with one gender or the other.

Leaving college early for professional volleyball

The plan for today is to focus almost exclusively on my PhD work. No volleyball or other outside distractions – or at least keeping them to a minimum. I’m aiming to end the day with a full draft of my thesis for my supervisor to review – or at least to get very close. I also have to finish up work on the slides for a presentation I have to give in Glasgow next week. I saw a bit of news from Vinny at Off the Block come across the wires that got my attention, though, and decided to put down some thoughts.

Jaeschke leaves Loyola early, signs with Polish pro team

For those who don’t know, Thomas Jaeschke is a member of the US National Team and recently finished his Junior year at Loyola where he won back-to-back national championships. He was the 2015 AVCA National Player of the Year.

While leaving college early to go pro is a common occurrence in basketball and football (and it’s probably happening a bit more often in soccer now), it’s not something you see in volleyball. There was talk last year about Micah Christenson (Team USA setter) leaving USC after his junior year, but he stuck it out (he’s now signed for an Italian team). That makes the Jaeschke move unusual. While volleyball players generally speaking don’t make nearly the money of athletes in other major sports, some of them do pretty well for themselves.

To make things even more interesting, he signed with Asseco Resovia. That’s a pretty good club. They were in this year’s CEV Champions League final where they lost to Matt Anderson’s Zenit Kazan side. From that perspective, it’s pretty easy to see the appeal to making a move like that. Fellow US player Paul Lottman actually just left Resovia for Berlin, which might have been what opened up a roster spot for Jaeschke.

Here’s the concern for me, though.

I’m a soccer fan, and have been for many years. During that time I’ve seen a lot of young US players go abroad with mixed results. In particular, players who sign on with larger, stronger clubs and/or in the better leagues often find their careers stunted because they can’t crack the starting line-up. They would have been better off going to a smaller club and/or to a lower level league where they would likely have been a starter and thus gotten a lot of playing time rather than riding the pine.

Is there a risk of something like that happening to someone like Jaeschke?

I honestly don’t know the answer. Maybe some of my friends in the professional coaching ranks will chime in.

Show respect by dominating, but not too much

The picture at left comes from the 2014 beach season. To say that the Swedish pair dominated the duo from Ireland in this set is an understatement. You don’t see many 21-0 score lines at international level events. You also don’t see a set of abs like #2 has either, but that’s a totally different conversation. 🙂

I present this photo as a lead in a subject that I’ve had conversations about over the years. That is the idea to respect your opposition enough to give full effort, and probably thrash them as a result.

Simon Loftus discussed it during his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview. His view was that you should respect the other team enough to beat them 25-0 if you can. The Swedish ladies seemingly did just that. Listen to Simon’s thoughts on the subject of respect and how you approach lower caliber opposition in the following excerpt.

I agree with Simon in basically all he says in that snippet. From the perspective of lopsided scores, volleyball is different from other major sports. There is a point objective to finish a set. That contrasts with a proscribed time limit as in football, basketball, and soccer – or being open-ended like baseball. A 25-0 score line in soccer is definitely running up the score. University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance famously told his teams not to win by double digits. In volleyball, though, that is just being as efficient as possible.

During a conversation I had once, however, I had a thought on the subject. He said it may be true that for some players/teams being beaten 25-0 would see them concede they were soundly beaten by a superior team. He also said, though, it’s perhaps just as likely to be completely demoralizing. I coached on the wrong side of a couple of 0-15 score lines in NCAA Division I volleyball back in the pre-rally days. I can tell you the players weren’t thinking about how much the other team respected them.

Which way the response goes, though, depends. I think it has to do with how the losing team perceives the quality of their own performance.

In our 0-15 case, we definitely played strong opposition, but we also did not play well at all. When I coached the Exeter women against Northumbria in the 2014 BUCS semifinals we were WAY over-matched. Aside from the initial shock of just how strong the other team was, though, I think the team largely handled getting pounded pretty well. Our focus wasn’t on winning, but on enjoying smaller victories. It was similar for the Exeter men playing Northumbria in the 2013 version of Final 8s. The competitive gap was fractionally narrower in that case, but it was still a big one. We went into the match knowing the reality and enjoyed the experience of going up against a far superior opponent.

That all speaks to the psychology of being on the weaker side of the court and the sorts of things we as coaches need to think about to prepare our teams for those types of matches. The thought I had during the conversation I mentioned, though, related to being the dominating team. Basically, I said as a coach if your team won 25-0, or by a similar type of score, then you made a mistake.

I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but stay with me.

In the interview excerpt above, Simon talks about having non-score related objectives for matches where you face a lower level team. The idea in cases like that is basically to use the opportunity to help the team and players to continue their development. I tie that in with the idea expressed by Karch Kiraly at the HP Coaches clinic that if you’re not making some amount of errors you’re not pushing the envelope enough. As such, you are losing a chance to learn and grow.

If a team wins a set 25-0 it basically means they didn’t make any errors – at least no significant ones. No doubt there will have been less than perfect execution at points along the way. That’s it, though. If we use Karch’s benchmark of about 2 good against 1 bad, then in 25 rallies you should be thinking to drop about 8 points due to failed execution (missed serve, hitting error, etc.). That is not precisely what he means, but I think you get the point.

Of course I’m not suggesting we tell our player that we expect to lose 1 point out of each 3. Rather, what we should do is create a scenario where that is the outcome because the things we have the players focus on push them. They are working on new or more precise serves. They are trying new offensive plays. You are using non-starters. That sort of thing. The players are still trying to win each rally. It’s just that you’ve introduced factors which are likely to result in more mistakes.

Obviously, you can take it too far. If the players are taking too many risks things will get ugly fast and the score might get uncomfortably tight. And if the players get silly about it, that’s just disrespectful. Best to keep the focus on 1-2 objectives, though each player could have something of their own to work on.

You help fill in perception gaps, but you also have them

A little while back Mark Lebedew presented a quote by the Duke of Wellington. He used it to make the case that no matter the situation we never fully remember all the events of a match. In fact, we aren’t even aware of all the events of a match (or any other event, for that matter). No one else does either. As a result, it’s important to gather information from as many different perspectives as possible. And they should come from objective sources like video and stats (keeping in mind that they too have their limits).

Think of this from the perspective of your role as coach. We volleyball coaches are largely external viewers of events. Yes, we are active participants in some ways, but our influence on actual play once the whistle blows is relatively limited. That means we are mainly in the role of supposed objective examiners who are there to provide feedback and guidance to the athletes. A big part of that is to provide our players with information from outside their scope of view and recall. We can do that by sharing what we see, showing them video, providing them with the relevant stats, etc.

An important part of this process is understanding each individual. They all have their own scope of vision, primary methods of information acquisition, and filters. For example, some players fixate on their errors. One of our coaching roles in that kind of situation is the make sure they also acknowledge their successes. You could say we help them with awareness of their blind spots and the important information they may not be either collecting or weighting properly.

We need think about things for ourselves along a similar line. Unfortunately, coaches often don’t have coaches of their own to help in the process.

Coaching Log – Jul 3, 2015

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

Right now the biggest thing on my mind is my future housing situation in Svedala. The club is in the process of trying to secure accommodation for me. Among the things I’m learning about Sweden, though, is that the housing market is quite tight. Svedala being a fairly small town, one would not tend to expect there to be tons of available housing in the first place, making it that much more of a challenge. I understand in the past the club owned an apartment for the coach, but at some point decided to sell it, meaning now they have to rent something anew each time around.

Adding to the complexity of the situation – at least on my end – is that I have to be out of the house in Exeter in three weeks. I could return on August 10th and stay until my contract with Svedala officially starts September 1st, but I’ve got an offer to return to Bühl in Germany (where I spent about 10 days with the men’s Bundesliga team last Summer) from August 9th through the end of the month. I’m inclined to accept, which would mean no return to England – at least from a living perspective (I’d have to return briefly for PhD-related stuff).

For the moment, what I’ll do from July 25th to August 9th is the open question. I’d like to at least spend a bit of time in Svedala over the summer to get a feel for things, meet some of the club folks and players, etc. The question is whether that can be worked out in a reasonable fashion. One of the returning players has offered me the use of her apartment as she’ll be back home with her family up north for much of the Summer. That’s an option that it looks like I’m going to go with – at least to start. We’ll see how things develop.

Getting to know the team
I continued my conversations with the returning players over the weekend and into this week. I’ve now talked with all of them, and one coming back into the team after a year away (see below). It’s been interesting getting a feel for their personalities. It’s just impressions at this point, though. I’m not going to presume that one Skype conversation each with these young women gives me a full sense of who they are individually. That process has only just barely begun. As additional players are added to the squad in the weeks/months ahead, I’ll look to have conversations with them as well.

Filling out the squad
I found out over the weekend that a player who’d been in the squad during the 2013-14 season has decided to return to Svedala for the new campaign. Although she trained with the team at times last season, her work/travel schedule precluded her from being fully in the squad. That situation has changed, though, and she’s eager to get back involved. Based on what I’ve heard from others, she’ll be a good addition in potentially a few different ways.

There is also another player from the 2013-14 squad – another starter – who would like to come back as well. There are some hurdles which I’m told need to be overcome, though.

I was told the other day that we’re 99% sure of signing a pair of players two fill two of our three spots. This is the “package deal” I mentioned in the last log entry. Terms were agreed with their agent, and contracts were going out. Once things are signed I’ll provide more information. That will leave one more foreign position to be filled.

Competition Schedule
A tentative league schedule has already been put out. Because a team dropped, the women’s Elitserie is only 9 teams this season. That means a standard home-and-away round-robin would only add up to 16 matches. To get that up to 20 the clubs have agreed to a plan where the league is split into 3 geographic groups of 3 teams each. Those three clubs will play each other an addition home-and-away series, adding four matches to the total, bringing the count to 20. I’m not overly keen on the idea of having two teams being over-weighted in where we sit in the standings, especially since one of them is the defending champion, but it is what it is.

I talked last week about the Gran Prix as a potential secondary competition the club could compete in, depending on our performance over the first half of the campaign. The Sports Director yesterday told me there’s something in the works which could add an interesting additional competition to the schedule as well, comprising six more matches. It’s not a done deal, though. If it develops I’ll post the details.

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