I came across the following question on a Facebook group.

During a match which coach makes players better? The one quietly sitting on the bench or the one standing at the 3 metre line constantly talking to players?

This is a subject one can approach from a couple of different perspectives.

What do great coaches do?

There were a lot of different responses. At one point someone asked for the names of coaches from great mainstream sports who just sat quietly and didn’t spend the game talking to their team. For me, that one was easy. Just look at many of the top soccer managers. A lot of them speak relatively little to their teams during play.

That said, I think it’s hard to compare coaching across sports in this way. Football coaches call plays for their teams. Baseball managers do the same. That necessarily means constant talk with the players. More continuous action sports like soccer and hockey are different. The coach can’t tell players what to do at every point – assuming players even hear what the coach is saying.

Other sports aside, my automatic answer to a question like this one for volleyball is Russ Rose. He’s a clear Hall of Fame coach who sits pretty quietly on the bench making his notes.

Make them better

The question above has an interesting wording to it – “makes players better”. If you interpret that to mean long-term player development, then the answer is clear. The less you as the coach talk, the more the players have to figure things out for themselves. That is good for their growth and education. Alexis at Coaches Corner wrote about this. It also relates to what I discussed in The more you talk, the less they train.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting you don’t say anything. Guidance and feedback are critical to development. What we can’t do, though, is always give the players the solution to the situations they face. First, there are way too many possible situations to do that. Second, the solution we come up with might not, in fact, be the best one for that player. Finally, when players come up with their own solutions they are much more likely to be retained.

Further, if we’re telling the players what to do all the time they don’t develop the ability to work together to solve problems. They don’t learn to communicate properly and don’t trust either themselves or each other to do what needs to be done in the situation.

Performance on the day

Having said the above, sometimes the coach’s focus is optimizing performance in the moment. I would still argue that for the most part we have to let players do things for themselves, but here there is certainly more room to provide information and direction. You may spot a way to more effectively attack the other team, or defend against their best hitter, for example. These are things you clearly should communicate to the team.

I am definitely not a fan of providing a lot of technical information during play. After all, this isn’t where you should be teaching them skills. The occasional reminder by way of a specific cue is fine, but anything beyond that is likely to distract them from simply playing the game. Feedback at this stage should be much more tactical than technical.

Then there’s the question of cheer-leading. For some teams, and in some situations, this is an important job for the coach. Some of the great coaches I’ve interview for Volleyball Coaching Wizards have talked about how they didn’t normally do much, but sometimes it was what that team needed in that moment.

What about …?

The other thing I thought of when I saw this question is what about the coach who stands, but isn’t constantly talking to the players? You see quite a few coaches like this. I have counted myself as one of them, as I’ve written about before. I stand for a couple of reasons. One of them is to have a better angle on the action so I can gather more, better information. I guess that’s kind of a hybrid thing. 🙂

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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.

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