Tag Archive for coaching philosophy

Selecting a team captain – one view

While reading the Nikolai Karpol biography, I came across the following quote.

“An important element in any victory is the team captain, the leader of the team is my main helper. She, both in life and on the court, has greater rights and greater responsibilities than the other players. The captain must be a player who understands the game and the coach’s thoughts, so when I choose a captain there is no democracy for me – I choose. The players have no say in it. There are sportsmen and women with a great deal of authority with their fellow players, but if they don’t understand me, they can’t be captains of the team I am leading. The captain must lead the team at training sessions and in the game, must know what to say to the referee, just as I would, she must know how the team is organised both on the court and in life. The captain is a player from whom I learn the problems in the team, both private and interpersonal conflicts. The captain knows more than the coach, she must know which problems should be hushed up and which ones need to be shared so we can solve them together.”

This is basically my own philosophy, as I wrote about before. I also wrote a post on the qualities of a good team captain which feeds into all of this. This is not the only approach, of course. That was the subject of a Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast episode. And team captains aren’t necessary in all situations. This particular approach works well for me, though.

My three principles for how my teams play

A fellow coach presented a question in a Facebook group. It was couched in the context of a job interview question, but I think it’s something worth thinking about much more broadly. I see it as a component piece to our general coaching philosophy.

Please tell me up to 3 of the PRINCIPLES you believe in that best describes your approach to the game/ how your teams play.

Here’s what I came up with for myself. I interpret the above as focusing on what our team does on the court, so I am concentrating on that rather than on training methods.

Players are not robots

I don’t want my players to be volleyball robots. By that I mean I don’t want to tell them how to play and I don’t want them to play by rigid rules. Certainly, there are some foundational elements I seek to have in place (e.g. establishing seam responsibilities). Beyond that, though, I want the players to be free to read and respond to the game. That means not telling them exactly where to be on defense, for example. It also means not requiring them to execute a skill in one certain way.

Does this mean I just put them on the court, then stand back and watch? Of course not! I provide information and feedback. I guide them in the direction of possible solutions to the problems they face. This is something I do, though, in the knowledge that they may come up with an effective solution on their own that’s different from mine.

My belief is when you trust players to do things themselves and show them that faith they are more relaxed. The result is more joy in their play, which generally produces better performances. Also, lessons players learn for themselves tend to take hold quicker and more firmly than those provided to them.

Focus on the mental aspects

There are two parts to the mental side of the game. One is reading the play. That isn’t just about what’s happening on the other side of the net. It also comes into play on your own side as players need to make note of what their teammates are doing to be prepared for what may come next. If you aren’t constantly reading and anticipating you won’t be ready to make plays.

The other part is decision-making. Each time a ball is played the player is doing two things. They are deciding on a solution to the problem they face – the skill they must employ and how – then attempting to execute based on that decision. If the player makes bad choices with the ball, they might get lucky and succeed. Chances are, though, things won’t work out well.

Relentless pressure

Something I constantly preach to my teams is that we should always make life hard for the other team. We should make them earn every point they get. In the case of inferior teams, I want them to feel like we’ve got them pinned to the mat with no chance of getting up. Superior teams should come away with respect for the way we challenged them from start to finish.

All of this comes from a positive mentality combined with intelligent play. We look to get a psychological edge and keep it.

Can you outline your own top three principles?

If you think coaching is easy, you’re probably doing it wrong

Mark Lebedew wrote a post titled How To Become A Coach. In it he shares a story about a former player relatively new to coaching talking about how hard it is to coach. I’ve heard something similar in my own coaching travels at different times. Players often don’t realize the amount of work that goes into good coaching. As a result, when they attempt to make a shift into coaching after they finish playing they get a major shock.

I’ve long been a proponent of players doing some coaching along the way. Many of the college players I’ve coached over the years have coached juniors. The three Americans on the Svedala team I coached professionally in Sweden were coaches for the club’s youth teams. One the one hand, I thinking coaching makes players better. They learn to look at things differently, and that can have a real positive impact on their play. On the other hand, the experience of being a coach helps them appreciate better the sorts of things their own coaches deal with on a regular basis.

Of course, some of the players are better coaches than others. That’s a function – at least in part – of having the types of skills coaching requires. They aren’t the same as those necessary to play volleyball at a high level.

None of them are really good coaches, though, for a couple of simple reasons. One is lack of experience, and the other is lack of education. The latter is Mark’s primary point in his piece. Paraphrasing, he says go to every course, clinic, practice, and match you can; talk to everyone you can and ask lots of questions; and do all the work you have to do, even if you don’t like. And you have to keep doing it. This is something I wholeheartedly endorse, having done just that sort of thing myself, with examples here, here, and here.

It should be noted that education is not enough, though. One of my early Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews was with Paulo Cunha. For many years he directed coaching education in his native Portugal. Paulo made the comment during our conversation that just getting a certification doesn’t make you a coach. People may think it does, but in some ways it’s just the beginning of the process.

Coaching is a challenge on many levels. If it isn’t, you’re probably not doing it right. To my mind, that’s a big part of what makes it interesting and compelling.

 

Do you foster a culture of alibis?

Back in 2014 I spent about 10 days at German woman’s club SC Potsdam during their preseason. Their coach at that time was Alberto Salomoni. Alberto shared the following on Facebook once. I believe it’s a translation from Italian.

“…. those who do sport know that you can not always win. The exception is to always win. The normal thing is the alternation of victory and defeat. I always said that i was proud of the team that won two World Championships and two European Championships, but i am equally proud of the team that lost the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. I am equally proud for one reason: because they knew how to lose. As we lost we did not say the referee was guilty, we did not have luck, one player, the coach or the manager were guilty. We said the opponents was better then us. Stop.

We built a mentality with the team, fighting what we call “the culture of the alibis”. What is an alibi? An alibi is to explain to someone, thing that i cannot do. Not because i am not able, but because there are always other reasons that have nothing to do with me or with my behavior/attitude. We are not the dream team, we are a team that dreams. Our dream is to win the Olympic Games and we will do everything for win it. If we will not win, we will not consider ourselves as loser. We will know that we failed a goal.

To failed a goal it does not mean that we are in the shit of the history of sport. This is very important especially for young people. Young people have to try to win in sport as much as possible. But don´t believe to people that say that the world is divided between winners and losers. In my opinion the world is divided especially between good and bad persons. This is the most important lesson. Then between bad persons are winners…unfortunately. And between good persons are unfortunately losers…”

Julio Velasco, “Il laureato” 1995

One day, hopefully we can get Velasco to do a Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview, as he is one of the true legendary coaches in our sport. I had the opportunity to see him present at the 2015 High Performance Coaches Clinic. As his comments above indicate, he’s got some really deep insights into coaching. Mark Lebedew shared another.

So, do you and/or your players get caught up in “alibis”?

I should note, Velasco’s comments remind me of something fellow legend John Wooden has talked about. He said in Wooden on Leadership that he was more proud of a team doing it’s absolute best than of winning a championship.

Why I coach

Why do I coach volleyball?

That’s a question I think about from time to time, especially when pondering my future. All of us should know what motivates us to coach, and to keep coaching. The moment we struggle to come up with a good motivation is probably the signal it’s close to the end, or at least time for a break.

Note, I’m not talking about coaching philosophy (you can see mine here).

So why do I coach? Or probably better stated…

What do I get out of coaching beyond a salary and benefits?

Building something

I am a builder. I like taking things from nothing to something, or from something to something better. It’s a big reason why I took the MSU job. We did it at the University of Exeter when I was there, going from basically an average regional program to one with a national reputation. It’s why I built the biggest Juniors club in my home state of Rhode Island. It was even part of what we did at Dean College, my first college coaching job. I’m motivated to constantly look for ways to make improvements.

This is where I had an issue in my time at Svedala. I wasn’t involved in the management side of the club. I was just the coach. As such, I couldn’t influence the club’s path forward. That grated on me, and no doubt was part of my overall feeling of discontent there.

My time at Svedala may not have gone the way I wanted, but it definitely taught me some things. One of those is that in any coaching job I take moving forward I need to have an influence on things off the court. Just coaching won’t be enough.

Problem solving

I really get into the problem solving aspect of coaching – answering the “How do we …?” questions. In some ways that overlaps with what I just talked about above in terms of building. Here, though, I’m more specifically talking about the immediate situation with the team in the current season.

Think of this as the nitty-gritty of getting the most out of a group of players. That’s stuff like trying to figure out the best starting 6 and playing a system that maximizes their collective potential. It’s figuring out training priorities to move the team forward in the areas we’ve identified as key. Maybe it’s improving specific technical skills.

Achievement

Many people who coach are inherently competitive. Coaching for them is a way they can continue to compete once their playing career has wound down. I’m not really motivated that way.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to win, and I’m competitive in my own kind of way. I just don’t put as much weight on winning and losing as others do. I’ve heard coaches say they would be very difficult to live with if they had a losing record. When I interviewed Mick Haley for Volleyball Coaching Wizards he talked about really having a problem if his team won less than 80% of its matches.

That sort of thing isn’t an issue for me in and of itself. Good thing too! I’ve coached some teams that didn’t win very much. The difference in whether I was happy with those teams or not is if they achieved. Some teams had the talent to be winners, but weren’t because they didn’t achieve. Other teams definitely achieved, but didn’t win much because they lacked the talent. And sometimes you have teams that win despite not really achieving.

That all said, I definitely acknowledge that winning is necessary for achievement beyond a certain point. You can’t take home your program’s first ever league championship without winning. You can’t reach your first national championship tournament without winning. There comes a time when the sort of building I talked about above requires win-related achievement. I acknowledge that wholeheartedly. It’s just that for me the achievement is more important than the winning.

Here’s an example. The Exeter University women’s team had a league record of 4-6 the first year I coached them. Somehow we still managed to qualify for the championship tournament as the third place team in our league (lost in the first round). We had a losing record, but the achievement was massive for us. It set the table for the following year, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

The sense of shared direction and commitment

As much as a lot of what I’ve done over the years could be viewed as individual accomplishment – like writing books, and completing my PhD – I get even more out of achieving things as part of a team. When everyone is on the same page and pulling in the same direction, and you achieve something great, it’s the best feeling in the world.

The Exeter women’s team in my second year was a great example of this. From the beginning of the season we had one objective – reach Final 8s. Everything we did was with that goal in mind. This was a direct carryover from the prior year’s experience of losing the first round playoff match.

We didn’t actually win any titles that season, and when we reached Final 8s we won just a single match out of four. We got there, though, and managed to find our way into the semifinals thanks to a tiebreak after pool play. It was an amazing thing because we again achieved something significant. I would have done just about anything for that team because we were all in it together.

Not teaching?

You’ll notice I didn’t actually talk about teaching in any of the above discussion. A lot of coaches bring that up as one of their big motivators. They love the teaching element. Once upon a time I probably would have said the same thing. These days I tend to think of myself more as a facilitator of learning than a teacher, per se.

There is another part to this, however. I figured out a while ago that my coaching niche is in the young adult age group. I’ve coached everything from U12s to middle aged adults, but I feel I am at my best with the 18-25 year olds. That means less need to teach basic skills. It’s usually more about refining technique and improving volleyball IQ at the individual level.

Not the thanks?

Hahahahahaha!

Gratitude is in relatively short supply in the coaching game. If that was something I needed to keep me going I’d have quit years ago. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. Every once in a while you receive an expression of gratitude. Their nice to receive, for sure. It’s always good to know you are appreciated. I just don’t expect it.

What about you?

I’ve shared my own coaching motivations. What about you? Why do you coach? What keeps you coming back year in and year out?

 

Are we trying to solve the wrong problems?

A member of the Volleyball Coaches and Trainers Facebook group posted something I think is worth a broad share. Here’s the snippet that really hits on the main point.

“…how far back do we coaches look for the fundamental and underlying errors in our coaching philosophies that make it difficult to find effective solutions? Are we, in fact, trying to solve the wrong problems.”

The volleyball angle

There are a couple of different angles on this. One of them relates to how we work with our teams and players. Are we trying to fix the last contact? Or are we trying to look at why there was a problem with the last contact?

For example, our libero in Position 5 shanks a ball attacked in their direction. Are we trying to fix what we perceive as the reason the libero shanked the ball (usually something mechanical)? Or are we looking to our block and realizing that it was badly placed or formed? Maybe we’re going back even further to see that our blocker’s footwork and/or initial positioning weren’t right.

You see where I’m going with this?

I’ve often told the story of my own development as a newer coach. I can remember an almost physical sensation of feeling my awareness of the court and the play expand. Like so many, I’d been fixated on each individual element. I wasn’t seeing the whole. As a result, I didn’t see root causality for the errors made on the last contact. At some point, though, my vision expanded.

I’m not saying that all at once I went from just seeing individual contacts to seeing the whole volleyball ballet. It was a progressive thing as I gained better understanding of how elements linked together. Watching a lot of volleyball with a critical eye helped a great deal too. I believe that was all part of my shift away from being very technically oriented as a coach to putting more emphasis on the mentality and structure of play.

The coaching angle

Let’s return to the piece that started this whole discussion. The bigger picture of our coaching is the other angle to consider. That’s the more direct focus of the quote above.

We see something “wrong” with our team or our coaching. Naturally, we want to fix it. As with the issue of only seeing the final outcome, though, are we only seeing the end result rather than the whole chain of causality getting there?

To once more quote the post, “If we were able to move back in the chain of events that have lead us to this point in our coaching and fix that one errant assumption, would coaching suddenly become much easier and more effective?”

So are you doing that? Do you try to work backwards from where you are at with a series of “Why?” or “How?” questions to figure out how you reached your current point? If not, it’s definitely something worth considering.

Coaching for aggressiveness, reduced errors, and other stuff

There’s an interesting article at Volleyball Toolbox from long-time high school coach Tom Houser. Nominally, it is the response to a question about helping create more aggressive teams that make fewer errors. It covers a few different ideas, though. I think they are worth reviewing.

There’s no replacement for experience.

Just about the first thing Tom talks about in the article is how he struggled early in his career to help players. He compared his knowledge of what his players needed to “Swiss cheese” because there were so many holes in it. The first reason for this is his lack of experience, and it’s a very legitimate point.

I mentioned in my coaching stages post how early-career coaches often think they know a lot, but really don’t. Sure, they might know a whole bunch about playing volleyball, but coaching is a different skill set. And tied in with that is the amount of volleyball you watch, particularly from a coaching perspective.

Learn from others, but understand context

Another thing Tom talks about is his learning process as a developing coach. He says he was never an assistant coach, thus didn’t have a mentorship experience from that perspective. Obviously, that’s a disadvantage.

As with many of us, Tom turned to books and videos to increase his knowledge and grow is toolkit. He notes, though, that much of what he saw was presented by national team and NCAA Division I coaches. He struggled to relate those drills and such to his high school players’ level. Tom called them “nearly useless”. I respect that he was thinking of the context differences. I think, though, that was probably a bit harsh. Most drills and games are adaptable to different levels. Not all, but most. But then doing so usually requires some experience, so see above.

Much coaching communication you hear is useless

Tom talks in his article about coaches saying things like “get low,” or “snap,” or “move your feet,” or “call the ball”. We hear phrases like that all the time. We’ve probably said them ourselves.

The point is in most cases those things don’t actually address the root cause of the problem, so they don’t actually address anything useful. Just like when parents yell them from the sidelines. 🙂

Coaching for aggressiveness

Moving on to addressing the question that inspired the post, Tom provides a relatively simple way to coach it. “All you have to do is ask your players to perform the drill WITHOUT punishment/consequences/eye-rolls for making a mistake performing the skill.”

This definitely matches my own philosophy. Aggressiveness will result in errors at times. You cannot encourage the one without accepting the fact of the other.

Also, Tom said he basically sets up games that require certain types of aggressiveness to win. Pretty simple, really.

Reducing errors

Having said that about the errors, Tom also shares his thoughts on keeping them to a minimum. One is the understand their source. Are they bad decisions, or are they bad execution? See what I wrote related to this breakdown in Coaching from a solutions perspective.

For the first type of error, it’s our job as coaches to teach better decision-making. In terms of the second type, Tom credits his teams making fewer mistakes on encouraging players toward simple, efficient mechanics.

Those are the major points. Definitely give the article a read and see what you takeaway for yourself.

Improving pre-match warm-ups

The question of how to handle pre-match warm-ups is one that comes to mind every season. I’m not the only one who finds that. Here’s a question I got from a coach in Hawaii.

I have been coaching boys high school volleyball for 27 years now and am always looking for ways to educate and improve myself. We just finished the season losing a well played match, so a loss I can live with. In any case most of our players are multi sport so the little time we have to work with them has to be jammed packed with info and training. Sorry so long winded and I do have a question in here but stared checking you site and I do enjoy reading the articles and the different drills.

Now my question: I am looking for a better warm up drill before each match. The warm ups go as follows just before the match both teams have a 5 minute shared on there respective sides of the net. Then each team has a 5 minute on court (hitting) and 5 off court (digging usually)…. it’s the 5 minutes hitting that I wanted help with or to do something different with. So the routine is I along with another coach will toss balls to the hitters to assure an accurate set in which to hit the ball. I would estimate each player gets about 4-6 good swings. Then we’ll go to a 6 ON where the starting six with the position players are are placed in there position. The coach will toss a free ball and players move accordingly and execute pass set hit and cover…. any thoughts are welcome…

I have to admit, I like the simplicity of FIVB warm-ups. Shared hitting is the biggest part. The first four minutes are through 4, and the second four minutes are through 2 (I actually thought four minutes was took long, but those are the rules). Two minutes of shared serving wraps things up. My teams in England did a dynamic warm-up, then just peppered until it was time. My Svedala team mixed in a defensive drill run by the players.

I know a lot of coaches don’t like shared hitting. That’s fine. Admittedly, it does lack game-like elements. My general feeling, though, is that what we do in women’s college these days with the 4-4-5-5 thing is a bit ridiculous. That’s after already spending 30+ minutes warming-up on your own half of the court!

Moreover, I sometimes see coaches do 30-60 minutes of “serve and pass” right before warm-ups begin. I wrote about this in my post about match-day serve and pass sessions. Seems excessive to me.

Anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to the email inquiry above.

What is the purpose of warm-ups?

We need to ask the question, what is the purpose of our pre-match warm-up?

I think the automatic response is to prepare for the upcoming competition. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Well, there’s a line of reasoning that takes a different view. It suggests that warm-ups are just one more developmental opportunity. You need to decide which point of view you favor because that factors into the best use of your warm-up time.

Consider the warm-up described above where coaches toss balls to hitters for a certain amount of time. If you take a “warm-ups are learning time” point of view, then you probably would not want coaches tossing to hitters. Those are low quality reps for learning purposes. Plus, that leaves out an opportunity for players to also work on passing and setting – maybe serving too. It’s the coaches who get the most reps in this sort of exercise. And if the setting is so poor as to argue for coaches tossing, then the setters definitely need more reps!

Now, if you are taking more the “preparation to play” perspective on warm-ups, then maybe the coach toss hitting makes sense. Personally, I’m not so sure.

The purpose of the coach toss seems to be to get the hitters “good” reps. What is a “good” rep, though? Is it good from the perspective that it replicates the type of hitting they will do in the match? Sounds like probably not. Instead, it seems like these are mainly feel good reps. If that’s the case, is there a better way to get a similar psychological effect?

Mixing both approaches

During the 2016 season at Midwestern State we eventually settled on a warm-up pattern that seemed to work. Our first four minutes on court was split in half. The first two minutes were the pin hitters receiving served balls and attacking sets from their passes. The second two minutes was the middles attacking, still off passed balls. This was a time where we could insert a bit of coaching. Just pull a player aside after they completed a rep.

In our five minute segment we did four minutes of just free ball initiated rallies and finished with a minute of serving. We didn’t start the year doing the free ball rally thing. It was something we switched to early on, though, and kept it. What better prepares you to play volleyball than playing volleyball? It was full-blooded hitting, blocking, and defense that really got the intensity level up.

Could we have created more of a learning opportunity with that latter segment? Probably. We went with free balls mainly for the sake of keeping the tempo high. We could, however, have initiated balls in certain ways to replicate something we wanted to work on. Also, we could have dictated certain types of playing patterns. For example, the first ball must be a high ball to the OH.

My thoughts

Returning to the question of the 5-minute warm-up time the coach above asked about, here’s something I would at least try. Jump straight into free ball rallies. The easy first ball should guarantee a decent set to start the play and things will proceed from there. The players should already be more than warm enough to jump and hit by this point, so that’s not the real issue.

If the players are not quite ready to go into game play, first try to figure out if you could do something different beforehand to get them ready. If so, you will make your warm-ups more effective and efficient. Maybe you do need to insert something like a little hitting into the over-the-net period, though. That’s fine. When all is said and done, even if you want to make your warm-up development, it still needs to leave the players in a good position to play.

How long should practices be?

Here’s an interesting question from the mail bag.

What do you think is the maximum (or optimal) amount of time High School teams should practice each day? I coach Freshmen but I am also the assistant for JV and Varsity. I ask this question because last season our Varsity team practiced only about 1.5 to 2 hours per day. Two other teams in our district practiced 3-4.5 hours/day! And it just so happens those two teams ended up playing for the state championship….

The first observation I would make is that you can’t necessarily equate practice time to playing in the state championship. It could simply be that those schools have a higher level of talent in their program than everyone else. This sort of analysis is fairly common. Winning Team does [insert whatever it is they do] so everyone else starts doing it too because they think that’s the reason for the success when it might have little or nothing to do with it. In other words, beware of false causalities.

Now, getting to the question of optimal practice length…

It seems to me that being in the gym more than 3 hours at a time is pretty old school. If you ask around these days I think you’ll find that the vast majority of coaches – especially the betters ones – come in under that. Certainly none of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards we’ve interviewed are going 4 hours these days – though some certainly did back in the day. What you hear from them is that they might start the year at 2.5-3 hours, but by the end of the season it’s 1.5-2 hours.

My personal philosophy is that you should only practice as long as you need to get done what you want done. Know what you need to work on. That’s only going to be a couple of things for any given session (at least it shouldn’t be more than that). If you are efficient in structuring your practice and maintaining your focus, you don’t need four hours. In fact, going that long to me sounds like you’re wasting a lot of time.

Efficiency aside, there is the question of how much the players get out of practice after a certain point. Plus, what’s the implications for their long-run fitness and health? Players are less able to learn as they become more fatigued. This includes mental fatigue, which is definitely an issue for long practices. Fatigue also increases injury risk, particularly if there isn’t sufficient rest/recovery.

Finally, I’d bring up match length. How long do your matches typically go? Two hours? Why would you train twice as long as your matches? That doesn’t really make a lot of sense, especially if you do a good job of keeping intensity up.

I would suggest that the teams going 3-4.5 hours are actually not helping themselves. But that’s without seeing exactly what they’re doing in that time. Maybe it’s not all on-court.

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