Game: Pin Hitter Challenge

Synopsis: This game pits the OH and OPP hitters against each other in a kill challenge to work on being able to score against full-team defense, but also allows for working on blocking and defense.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for intermediate and advanced players.

Requirements: 2 teams, court, balls

Execution: Playing 6 v 6 in a single rotation, one side receives all serves. The setter is back row and alternates setting the OH and the OPP. If one of them scores and the other does not, that hitter earns a point. If neither scores or both score, then it is a wash. The defensive team plays the second ball over when they make digs to keep rallies going. Each new rally begins with a serve. Play to a certain number of points.

Variations:

  • You could designate only high ball attacks if that’s a specific area of focus you want.
  • Blockers can be given specific instructions as to what to take/give.
  • You can have your defense play something other than the usual one to act as an upcoming opponent or work on developing a new system.

Additional Comments:

  • I saw this demonstrated by the USA National Team coaching staff at the HP Coaches Clinic.
  • It’s not a bad idea to keep hitting stats while doing this game, to get the added information above and beyond who wins.
  • Having the defensive team play the second ball over keeps them engaged and allows for work on hitting in transition in a more controlled fashion than going off a 3rd touch contact.

Ice-breaking and bonding games

The most interactive session at the HP Coaches Clinic I attended in 2015 was run by Steve Shenbaum. You may recognize him from his days as an actor. He focused on ways to get players to know each other in a safe, fun, and often funny way through a series of games. He had all of us play a couple of them.

1-2-3

This is a very simple game but can get quite funny. Two people stand in front of each other and alternate counting 1-2-3. As in Person A says 1, Person B says 2, Person A says 3, Person B says 1, and so on. Easy enough. There three variations that make things a bit more interesting. The first one is to replace saying 1 with a clap (clap-2-3). The second is to replace 2 with a snap of the fingers (1-snap-3). The third is to replace 3 with a foot stomp (1-2-stomp). Replacing a number with an action forces more concentration and creates a pattern change. It also allows for the introduction of some personality as how people clap, snap, or stomp is completely up to them.

Red Light/Green Light

This was the other game Steve has us actually play with a partner. Basically, it’s an improvisational story-telling type of conversation. One person is the talker while the other is the listener. The teller says a sentence like “I had cheese on my eggs this morning.” The listener then says Yes or No. If the listener says Yes, then the talker continues along the same line. For example, “I had a bagel and some orange juice as well.” If the listener says No, then the talker has to change things up. For example, they might say “Actually, I had a bowl of cereal.” After each new sentence the listener says Yes or No and the talker reacts accordingly. You can imagine all the random directions this can go. Each person spends a predetermined amount of time as talker (say 2 minutes).

There were three other games Steve showed us. They were Coins, Dimmer Switch, and Hitchhiker. Honestly, I can’t remember what Coins was about. The other two were very improvisational as well, but a bit too complex to really describe here. I brought up the Dimmer Switch concept in the Ideas for new team integration post. Basically it has to do with raising or lower an individual’s personal level of energy and enthusiasm.

Having done both the 1-2-3 and Red Light/Green Light games I can very easily see how they could be useful in helping players start connecting with each other on a personal level. Definitely more fun and better for breaking down inter-personal barriers than being forced to tell each other three things about ourselves and some of the other stuff that gets used in team building exercises.

Coaching work-life balance

Are you are planning or considering a career as a full-time volleyball coach? It could be at the college level in the US, in the professional ranks in Europe or elsewhere – or as someone who makes a living by cobbling together multiple coaching roles. If so, balancing the demands of your coaching and your life outside coaching will be a very big deal.

Coaching is not like a standard 9 to 5 job, as you may already be aware. It has a tendency to become all-consuming, at least for some of us (I consider myself in that category). That means you will end up putting in way more hours on it than you probably would most other jobs. I’ll use coaching at the women’s Division I level in the US as an example. Here are some of the things that will take you out of having a nice, regular schedule.

  • Team travel – Basically every other week, on average, you’re going to be on the road for at least two days.
  • Recruiting travel – From February to early July you’re going to have to be off at Juniors tournaments recruiting. Figure on at least one trip per month. Then add on visiting club programs and doing home visits.
  • Recruiting communication – This is year-round, and often takes place in the evening.
  • Video work – This includes editing video for internal use and to share with the players and video analysis to scout the opposition, which can be a major time suck.
  • S&C and individuals training – These things can get scheduled at all different times, including early mornings, especially in the Spring season.

On top of this you can add press/media demands, community relations, fundraising, alumni relations, taking part in Athletic Department and university functions, running camps/clinics, dealing with player emergencies, and a number of other things that pop up. And if you’re at the Division II or Division III level you could very well have a secondary duty such as teaching or administrative work to stack on top of all this. When I coached at Brown, we also ran a Juniors club to help grow the sport locally.

For those who might be wondering, the demands are not dissimilar for professional coaches. I know of assistants who are the head coach for one of the club’s lower teams. The head coaches have all kinds of press and media requirements. They have to interact with supporters groups and take calls from club management at all hours. And they all do lots and lots of video work. The point is, full-time coaching creates work-life balance challenges, especially as you move up the competitive ladder.

On top of that, coaching tenures can shorten up considerably. In professional volleyball you don’t see a lot of coaches who’ve been in their position for a long time (it’s similar in other sports as well). In the US collegiate realm you do see it a bit more. It tends, though, to be at the very top (think Russ Rose, John Dunning, etc.) where there’s relatively little movement. You can also see it much lower down where the expectations are different (keep the student-athletes happy, stay out of trouble, etc.). Coaching positions in the middling ranks turn-over quite often. And let’s not even get started with assistant coaches.

So, not only do you have to consider the long, irregular hours and probable volleyball invasions into home time. You also have the prospect of moving jobs, and maybe locales, every few years.

It’s been suggested that the reason there aren’t more women in coaching, especially at the higher levels, is that they want a better balance and/or more stability. True or not, it’s something all of us have to think about when plotting out a career in coaching. What we end up deciding will have a lot to do with where we are in our careers, our family situation and support structure, and the the priorities we have in life.

P.S.: There are some tips on improving work-life balance on the AVCA blog.

Ideas for new team integration

Most of us volleyball coaches at some point along the way have had to deal with a situation of having a bunch of players on the court who don’t know each other and have never played together before. I certainly dealt with that in my three seasons coaching at the University of Exeter. Annual turnover was better than 50% each year. I also definitely dealt with it back in my days of coaching Juniors volleyball. You get done with try-outs. Now you have a group of players that need to be integrated, sometimes very quickly. How do you do that?

One of the sessions at the 2015 HP Coaches Clinic was on this subject. Shelton Collier is the head coach at Wingate University. He also coaches at the USA junior national team level, and he shared some thoughts on how to accelerate the integration process. This is something they deal with frequently because they often have very little time between team selection and their first match. It might only have a handful of training sessions.

One of the ideas Shelton offered as a way to quickly get players working together and communicating on the court is to put them in scramble mode. Basically, that means stressing them in a game-play environment with unpredictable situations and a high tempo. The Scramble Game is an example of this. Think of it as the volleyball equivalent of throwing someone in to the deep end of the swimming pool. The rapid pace leaves no time for thinking, which tends to break down barriers. Will there be mistakes? Of course. But as the action goes on the players will start to sort things out with each other through communication and understanding.

The other thing Shelton brought up was the use of the “dimmer switch” idea with respect to intensity. This is something from Steve Shenbaum’s presentation at the clinic. It goes something like this.

Usually, with a new group of players together on the court, the intensity level and communication are pretty low. On a 0-10 scale it might be something like a 2-3. The players are quiet and look at each other to figure out who’s going to play the ball.

Shelton ran a mixed group of collegiate players through a drill in his session.That’s about where they were at. After a bit he stopped them. He talked about them being at that 2-3 level, getting them to buy into the idea. He then asked them to try to move that up to a 6. The players immediately increased their intensity and communication. After a bit longer Shelton then asked them to jack it up to a 9. That’s higher than you’d expect to see during training (at least for any sustained period), but it served to show them where they could really take things.

The important aspect to this dimmer switch or intensity scale idea is that Shelton didn’t actually tell the players what to do. He didn’t say “Talk” or “Call the ball” or anything like that. He simply identified the current level and indicated where he wanted it to be. That allowed each player individually to figure out what they needed to do to get their own intensity level to the proper point. This is key because players vary considerably. The dimmer idea allows them to get the the right intensity level in a way that is comfortable for them.

So next time you find yourself with a new bunch of players to start to integrate into a team, think scramble and dimmer switch. You might find both ideas quite useful.

Got any favorite team integration ideas of your own? Leave a comment below to share them.

Volleyball Coaching Job Search Log – Feb 27, 2015

I had a lot of back-and-forth thinking over applying for a couple of Division III head coach jobs that recently got posted. I think I’ve decided not to go the full-time route at that level, though, since mainly it means having some other job that I wouldn’t normally be too excited about. If I were to end up doing DIII it would be part-time in conjunction with a normal job of my choosing – in which case I could alternatively do high school and/or club coaching. The one potential exception is a combined combined men’s and women’s position, which is definitely something I find appealing at that level. One of the jobs in frame is just such a position, and I’ve applied for it. I’ve enjoyed have that kind of joint role the last couple years at Exeter, especially in the way the two teams have worked together, supported each other, etc. The problem with applying for a men’s related position at this point is that they aren’t likely to hire someone officially until after the season ends, so the process could drag out for a while.

I’ve applied for another head coach job at Division I program in the Northeast. It’s one where a successful coach has moved on to become an assistant at a big conference program. The roster of the program looks like a professional one with the bulk of it being foreign. My guess is the history winning there will attract a bunch of applicants who want an easy path to getting an NCAA tournament appearance on their resume.

I applied for the assistant job at one of the schools where I previously applied to be the head coach. No doubt there are a few others like that which will open up in the weeks ahead as coaches get going in their new jobs.

I put in for a few 2nd assistant positions at mid-level programs in the Midwest. I wasn’t going to go that route because they are essentially a step backwards in terms of my coaching progression and the pay won’t be great, but I ended up changing my mind. They would still get me back into NCAA Division I coaching, and I would be in an area of the country where volleyball has a decent level of respect – unlike the Northeast where I’ve done most of my coaching (never mind England!). I’ve seen the posted salary for one of them. It’s predictably low, but even at that it’s quite a bit higher than what I was getting in my 1st assistant days at Brown. Sad, but true. I have some other side sources of income that will help keep things from being too lean in any case.

Also put in for what is likely a 2nd assistant position at a top conference program. No doubt the list of candidates for that job will be a mile long.

Of the follow-up emails I sent out last week, I got one response basically right away with respect to a head coach job. I’d emailed the Assistant A.D. with oversight over the volleyball program. He responded telling me they would begin reviewing resumes this week. No other communication as yet, though.

On the rejection front there’s the Northern Kentucky assistant job. Didn’t even get a call and the new guy definitely can’t match my qualifications. Could have been other considerations at work, though.

I’ve started slowly trying to put out feelers in the professional volleyball world. They are still largely in-season, though. Germany, for example, just finished the regular season, but will have play-offs running right through April. The CEV Champions League Final 4 takes place the last weekend of March.

Game: 2 vs. 2 with a Player Net

Synopsis: This variation on Winners is a small-sided game which can be used when you don’t have a net available, especially for younger and/or more developmental players. Also potentially useful in situations where you have lots of players, but little space.

Age/Skill Level: This game is suitable for all levels.

Requirements: 6 players, 1 balls.

Execution: Start with three teams of 2 players each. One of the team starts as the net. They stand in the middle. The other two teams play out a rally. The loser of the rally swaps places with the “net” team and serves the next point.

Variations:

  • The game could be played for time or until one team won a given number of points.
  • Depending on the amount of space available, you could configure the “court” to be short or narrow or whatever suits your purpose.
  • You could increase the team sizes to 3s, and maybe 4s.
  • Rather than switching on each rally, you could play mini games (say first to 3).

Additional Comments:

  • I saw this diagrammed on a table at breakfast by John Kessel.
  • If there is a rope or string or some other thing that could act as a net, the “net” team can hold that rather than having the rally played out over them.
  • This is something that potentially could be used in a pre-match warm-up when you only have one side of the court.

Potential coaching interview questions

Great news! You made it through the initial screening process for the coaching job you want, and now you’re on the short list. They invited you to visit with them. Or perhaps it’s just a phone call to start. Either way, your foot is in the door. So what’s the next thing on your mind? Is it something like this:

What will I be asked in the interview?

I hope so, because it should be!

Here are some of the ones you might get.

  • What would you do if a parent approached you and complained about playing time (or anything else, really)?
  • If it’s a team which has been successful, how do you plan to continue the success?
  • If it’s a team which hasn’t been a contender, how do you plan on turning the program around?
  • What is your coaching philosophy?
  • How do I know you’re not a jerk (or some variation)?
  • What is your biggest challenge is as a coach?
  • How do you deal with players (or parents) who are out of line?
  • Define sportsmanship.
  • How are you going to communicate with your student athletes?
  • What would your typical practice look like?
  • How do you plan to help the school recruit players?
  • How I plan to help athletes get recruited by colleges?
  • Who would you bring in as assistant?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • Why they should hire you over their other applicants?
  • Do you have a season plan? A long-term plan?

Of course, there are different considerations for every job, and they will tend to bias interview conversations in one direction or another. The more you know about the recent history of the team you’re looking to coach, the person you’ll be working for, and the like, the more likely you’ll be able to anticipate the questions and be prepared to offer a good response.

And don’t forget to think about questions to ask them.

What percentage of reps should be good?

One of the common themes in the presentations of the USA Women’s National Team coaching staff at the HP Coaches Clinic in 2015 was the idea of 2-out-of-3. I’m talking not just the senior team, but also the younger squads. What they were suggesting is that as coaches we should be aiming to see our players be successful two out of every three attempts, on average. This is for whatever aspect of the game we’re working on in training. I’ll give it a moment to let that sink in and see what kind of immediate reaction that stimulates in your mind. 😉

Here’s what Karch & Co. meant by this.

They want the team and the players in a constant developmental state. When a player is learning, they are making mistakes. It’s a natural part of the process. If mistakes aren’t being made then the players aren’t pushing beyond their current capabilities. That means either they aren’t taking chances or we as coaches aren’t stressing them properly. They aren’t getting out of their comfort zone.

Does a 33% failure rate sound high to you? If so, why? Are you the sort of coach who likes to have practices that look good? Lots of clean reps and all that. If so, then realize what you’re probably developing is good practice players, and not necessarily good match players. This is something I talked about after a fashion in Going beyond maximizing player contacts.

Personally, I find getting players to accept that making mistakes is part of the process is often the real challenge. This is especially true of younger female athletes. It takes a lot of encouragement to get them over that particular hump. If you can do it, though, their development can really accelerate.

The flip side to the encouragement of making mistakes is when there are too many errors. If you find your team executing properly on fewer than 2 good reps out of every 3 then you need to reconsider what you’re doing. Maybe the players are being overly aggressive (common of young male athletes). Maybe they don’t yet have the level of skill or tactical understanding required for what you’re attempting to do with them. Whatever it is, you need to ease things off a bit to try to get back into that 2-of-3 sweet spot, not just for the sake of skill development but also for their confidence.

That said, I do personally find value in introducing frustration into the mix from time to time. By that I mean having drill or a game, or even a whole practice session, which I know will give the players considerable trouble on one level or another. These tend to be less about individual skill execution and more about team problem-solving (developing solutions as a unit). I use them to give the team the chance to try to learn how to deal with adversity so when they inevitably face it in a match they have the mental toughness to do what needs to be done.

The bottom line is as a coach we need to embrace mistakes and get our players to do the same.

Increasing player reads

A while back I wrote about going beyond maximizing player contacts and the idea of read-plan-execute (RPE). In brief, RPE is what players do any time they play the ball. They read the contact before them, plan a solution, and execute the required skill. An issue with block training (simple reps) is it reduces the read requirement, sometimes all the way to essentially zero. That is why game-like drills are strongly preferred.

Going game-like makes sure we don’t lose the reading aspect of RPE, but what can we do to maximize our read opportunities? At the HP Coaches Clinic in 2015, Julio Velasco talked about watching as training. I’ve talked about this from a coaching perspective (see Tip for Coaching Volleyball: Watch more volleyball!), but the same applies to players. The more they see, the better they will be able to read the game. Karch Kiraly actually took that a little further. He in showed how players could do simulated reps when waiting their turn in line, which connects seeing and doing.

How can we increase reads in game play, though?

The answer is kind of simple. As John Kessell observed during one breakfast discussion at the clinic, you can have the players play 2-touch rather than 3-touch games. All else equal, it increases the over-the-net reads by 50%. There are also some other advantages to mixing 2-touch in as well, as I wrote about a while back in Using 2-touch games to challenge your players.

Of course there are trade-offs. You just need to strike a balance with your training focus.

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