Back in 2016 I attended an Art of Coaching clinic. Now I can finally say I’ve attended a Gold Medal Squared (GMS) clinic as well. My new employer, Charleston Academy, hosted it last weekend. Management of the club brought them in to contribute to creating our coaching foundation as a club. It wasn’t about becoming a GMS club, per se. Rather, it was about seeing what we wanted to use and where we might want to go in a different direction. Mostly, it was our staff in attendance, but we had a couple of others on-hand as well.
In this post I’m going to provide an outline of what the clinic covered. The clinicians were Mike Wall and Rob Neilson, both members of the USA Men’s National Team staff.
If you’re not familiar with GMS, let me provide a quick overview. Carl McGown, who I interviewed for Volleyball Coaching Wizards, linked up with Doug Beal and Marv Dunphy to form GMS in 1985. This is immediately after Beal coached the USA Men to the 1984 Olympic gold and before Dunphy repeated that feat in 1988. The basic concept was to share scientifically-driven coaching principles.
I’ll leave you to read more on their About page if you’d like more info.
The clinic ran over three days. We started on Friday evening with a 3 hour coaches-only session that was a combination of classroom and on-court activities. That continued on Saturday morning with a similar structure. Saturday afternoon was mainly in the gym with players. We repeated that on Sunday morning, but finished with a short return to the classroom.
The coach-only time in the gym was about demonstrating the key volleyball skills and how GMS teaches them, including their cues. When we had the players it was more about running a practice. That was a combination of structure and how to incorporate the teaching elements. The first of the “practice” session was run like a practice. The second one, though, was more about demonstrating a series of different drill and game ideas.
I should note that after each of the two practice sessions we had separate specialized sessions for certain players. On Saturday it was on setting. Sunday’s was on individual defense.
The clinic had four main focal points.
- Applying the science – Knowing what the research says about skill development and how it applies to playing systems.
- Skill Training – How they teach the various skills.
- Teaching in the game paradigm – How coaches can keep the teaching going when operating in a game-play situation
- Efficiency – Maximizing your limited practice time
I’m going to speak on each of these elements as I saw them.
Applying the science – Part I
A foundational part of what GMS is about is the motor learning science. That speaks to two things. One is the idea of whole vs. part. That means teaching the whole skill rather than breaking it down and teaching all the individual elements, then trying to put them together. The science says whole is better, so we want to teach players within the context of them executing the full skill.
The other is the concept of specificity, which tells us that skills are very specific and there’s little transfer from one environment to another. For example, while hitting a baseball off a tee and hitting a live pitch would seem to be quite similar, they are very different from a motor learning perspective. All this means we want to train our players in as close to the conditions they will execute the skill in as possible – meaning making things as game-like as we can.
Now, this absolutely does not mean we just roll the balls out and let them play. Rather, because they have to execute the skills in game situations we put them in those situations and teach them in that paradigm. I’ll speak below on ways to do that.
The other thing this means is that we MUST do EVERYTHING in a random (more game-like) fashion – that blocked training has no place. Yes, as much as possible, random is favored over blocked. There is definitely value, though, in using some amount of blocked training when teaching a skill.
Basically, you want to use blocked training to establish a sense of proper execution in the athlete. That doesn’t mean they’ve got it down 100%. It just means they get what you want them to do. They have a very basic competence. As soon as that is accomplished, you want to put the blocked training aside and make things game-like. And you can periodically return to the blocked work if a refresher is required. Just keep the training balance heavily random.
Applying the science – Part II
The other part of applying the science is more about understanding the patterns in the game. That means research into what happens during play and the best ways to operate. There are a couple of areas of specific focus for GMS in this regard.
Defense – GMS is a big proponent of what’s called the middle-middle defense. Basically, that means the defender in Position 6 locates themselves halfway between the attack line and the end line (so 20′ off the net) and right in the middle of the court. They then stay there regardless of set destination. The reason GMS supports this system is the research they’ve done into where balls go (heat mapping) and lots of them go to the middle of the court.
Passing Target – This one is less about heat mapping and more about distributions. For any given target the distribution of passing outcomes will mean some end up going too far and some will be too short. GMS is very big on minimizing overpasses, so they advocate a passing target 4-5 feet off the net.
Setting Target – As with passing targets, the focus here is on the distribution of outcomes. Sets that are too tight or too wide are problematic of hitters, so GMS wants sets aimed off the net and a bit inside – call it 3′ off and 3′ inside. For an out-of-system high ball set, the variance is bigger, so they suggest even further off and further in – 5′ x 5′ or even more.
These passing and setting targets are definitely conservative philosophies with a focus on limiting negative outcomes (overpasses, trap sets, etc.). Not all coaches agree that attempting to minimize errors is the best philosophy, though. See my post on setting tight as one example.
I’m not going to go into all the details of how they teach the various skills. In fact, we never got around to serving because of some time constraints (a personal disappointment of mine). Instead, I’m going to share a couple of things GMS advocates for that are signature elements.
Swing blocking – Once upon a time this was a very new idea. Now you see it employed quite a lot. The details of how to train swing blocking were a feature of the clinic.
Arms rather than legs in passing – When it comes to passing, GMS puts a strong emphasis on a small swing of the arms rather than lifting with the legs when it comes to passing. Basically, it comes down to the arms being better for fine control.
4-step attack approach – GMS strongly favors attackers using a 4-step approach, especially on the pins. They do acknowledge that MBs are more likely to only be able to do a 3-step, especially in transition.
This doesn’t really fall into skills so much as systems, but GMS also advocates the bunch-read blocking scheme, which ties in with swing blocking.
Teaching in the game paradigm
Basically, what I mean by this is providing feedback during game-oriented activities. This could be in a basic small-sided game like Winners, or in full 6 v 6 play, and anywhere in between. The basic concept is like Second Chance. If a player doesn’t execute a skill properly, you make them do it again correctly.
This concept extends to something like a player (or players) not going for the ball. Rather than make them run or something like that, you make them do what they should have done – perhaps several times – before getting back to the work at hand. This keeps the focus on learning rather than punishing.
A big feature of this in-game teaching is to give the players lots and lots of game-like reps with tons of feedback. By know you probably know how much I value feedback in its various forms.
In fact, Mike joked about how the standard reply they give when asked “How do I teach …. ” is “Reps and feedback”. It’s very much in line with what I said about in You don’t need a new drill.
The final big concept of the clinic was the idea of running highly efficient practices. This comes down to a couple of key ideas.
Limited number of exercises – You don’t need 100 drills. If you keep it limited to something like 12 activities then you won’t waste valuable time explaining new drills and games all the time, or trying to get them to remember ones you’ve only used infrequently. The players will know what to do, so they can jump right in – including doing pre-practice elements on their own.
Use a whiteboard – Lay everything out on a whiteboard – including the full practice plan, any sort of team or group splits required, and whatever you need to keep track of scoring, etc.
I would also toss in here the idea of being able to do more teaching and providing of feedback and less running of drills. If you are doing things to facilitate the running of a drill or game that prevent you from looking at what you need to be watching, then something needs to change.
Additional thoughts and observations
I’m not going to advocate one way or another for the specific way GMS teaches individual skills. This isn’t the place. What I will do, though, is suggest you see what they have to say – with an open mind – and see how it compares to what you are doing or what others do. Don’t accept it or reject it without full comprehension.
Second, things like the decision to go with the middle-middle defense are based on the research they’ve done. Do your own for your level of play and see if you find anything different. Whether it confirms or refutes the GMS data you’re further ahead in your coaching.
Finally, keep in mind that your will have to prioritize things for your own team. That might meaning going against certain principles. For example, GMS advocates putting your best defender where most balls go. As their figures show, that usually means in Position 6. The decision whether to go with your libero in 5 or 6, though, is more nuanced and speaks to the broader question of the purpose of your defense.
One last comment on research
The manual provided to coaches at these GMS clinics includes some research data. For example, there’s a page that shows the relative ranking of different elements (quality of pass, set distance from the net, where the ball is set, etc.) with respect to winning outcomes. It’s interesting reading, but has some serious limitations. I actually addressed this very data previously.
Two of the noteworthy points drawn from the research have to do with set distance from the net and the importance of blocking. Speaking to the latter first, Mike specifically talked about blocking have a low correlation to winning and losing. The problem is that’s based on the number of actual blocks, not blocking in the broader sense. If you play a strong attacking team and did not block at all, I think you’d find a pretty high negative correlation between that decision and how often you won! That’s an issue of limits to the data. So too is the fact that the studies in question were of one team in one season.
Looking at set distance, a major factor there is hitter expectation. If a hitter expects the ball set at 3′ off the net then one would naturally expect their success to be highest on balls set at that distance. If they expect the set at 1′, though, and got a 3′ set instead, then chances are they won’t do as well. Any analysis with focuses strictly on raw distance and not distance relative to expectations could provide misleading and/or unhelpful results. This is something I actually addressed with Carl during his Wizards interview.
This all speaks to what I talked about my post about the importance of actually reading and understanding the research, not just going along with what people say about it.
I thought the GMS clinic overall was quite good. For newer coaches it has the advantage of providing a comprehensive reasoned framework (though you may not agree with all those reasons) for skill training in certain ways. For others it is likely to at least stimulate some new thinking – which is always a good idea.
Coming in I was quite familiar with most of the concepts presented, but a couple of the members of our staff at Charleston Academy had their minds blown in multiple areas. They’ve got long coaching backgrounds – and a good history of successful teams – but had simply never been exposed to some of the concepts presented. And I’m not even talking about things that are GMS-specific.
Of course, to derive value from anything like this you have to enter it with an open mind. Fortunately, our staff did. They pushed back in certain areas, but with questions rather than negative observations. It was more about understanding than rejection (or simple acceptance, for that matter), which is the way you should always be. That continuous growth attitude is actually why they are on the staff in the first place.
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