Tag Archive for coaching philosophy

Avoiding playing down to the opposition’s level

Playing down to the level of weaker opposition is a topic brought up on the At Home on the Court blog. Mark makes the observation in terms of trying to avoid this happening.

“Ultimately a situation is created in which teams and players measure themselves not against their opponent but against themselves.”

This speaks to the idea that a team – players and coach – expects a certain level of commitment and performance at all times. That level is not just for when the competition is challenging. You do this by setting the standards early and keeping everyone focused on them throughout. Players I’ve coached will tell you I don’t hesitate to call a timeout to scold a team if I see them playing below their capability. This happens even – perhaps especially – when they are winning easily.

But I don’t want to be in that situation. I avoid it by having specific plans and objectives for those types of matches. That could mean using non-starters. It could mean working on specific skills or strategies. Find something specific – and ideally objective – you can have the team or individual players work on. That lets you take the focus away from the scoreboard. Instead, it puts it on things that will help the team’s development. Alexis at Coaches Corner would probably put this in the category of “process over outcome”. This is probably reasonable. I would still frame it within the context of kicking the other team’s tail all over the court, though.

For example, during the 2013-14 season my Exeter women’s team played quite a few matches against significantly weaker teams. We needed to be able to get something out of those matches to help us prepare to play the tougher teams in key matches. I was able to play a lot of different players and line-ups. I was able to focus them on things like serving, and on thinking about how to identify and take advantage of opposition weaknesses. This all paid dividends down the line.

Training at a faster tempo than matches

If you’ve never heard the name John Wooden and you’re a coach – of any sport – then as soon as you finish reading this post I strongly recommend you go out and do some research. Many think Wooden is among the greatest coaches of all time. That’s not just from the perspective of winning a lot – which he did. It’s also from the perspective of teaching – which he was as well. A good biography about him I read a number of years ago is They Call Me Coach. That’s probably a reasonable starting point. After that you can delve into his numerous books and videos on coaching and leadership.

Wooden was the subject of some academic research into teaching/coaching methods back in the 1970s. This paper is worth a read. An interesting observation of the way he ran his training sessions is the following from a former player.

Practices at UCLA were nonstop, electric, supercharged, intense, demanding . . . with Coach pacing the sidelines like a caged tiger, barking instructions, positive reinforcement, and maxims: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” He constantly changed drills and scrimmages, exhorting us to “move quickly, hurry up.” Games seemed like they happened in a slower gear. I’d think in games, “why is this taking so long because everything we did in games happened faster in practice.”

I don’t know if Wooden was the motivation for it, but for a long time I have been very much in favor of using what I refer to as “overspeed” types of games and drills in volleyball. That is akin to what the player describes above. By overspeed I mean activities during which things happen faster than they would in a match. An example of this is initiating a new ball into a 6 v 6 game as soon as a rally ends. This is a feature of a game like bingo-bango-bongo.

There are a couple of reasons for doing this. One is to increase training intensity by not giving players much in the way of break time between plays. Another is getting players constantly focused on their next responsibility since they need to be alert to the next ball. All of this serves to make things seem to slow down during matches.

I’m certainly not saying I do everything in training overspeed. I’d probably have players dropping over on the court if I did. Mainly I use it in game-play situations. In part that’s because frankly I can’t stand the slow pace of things when it’s just normal play. I can get my players a lot more repetitions by using the high tempo games. It also gets a bit of conditioning work in there too. 😉

A few thoughts from a top coach

A while back, Mark over At Home on the Court shared some tips from top level Italian coach Daniele Bagnoli. He picked them up at a coaching event in Spain. There are a few in particular I want to comment on.

“Keep clear what your level is and coach to it.”

This can be interpreted in a few ways. One is that you should be aware of your own strengths and weakness and try to coach toward the latter. Another is that you should know the level of play and competition your team is at. Then you want to make sure to coach appropriately for it, not to some other level. This is important because too often coaches, especially developing ones, will latch on to something they see at a clinic or hear that the national team coach is using and think they should do the same with their teams. They fail to consider the context. Not everything in coaching is appropriate for all levels and all situations.

“The coach must know what the players can and can’t do and organize his team structure appropriately.”

Most of us don’t have the luxury of picking players to fit a specific type of playing style or system we have in mind. We have to deal with the players available to us at the time. Even those of us who can pick our players must be adaptable. In order to have the most success we need to find the ways to get the most out of the talent, strengths, and skills they have, while trying to work around weaknesses. Sometimes this requires being a bit creative. That was the case with my three-middle line-up, or when I played a setter and MB opposite each other.

“What is important is not how you receive, it is how you sideout.”

Very true. The bottom line is winning the point. Though receiving well certainly helps. 🙂

“The reception of a strong serve doesn’t have to be perfect. What is important is that there are no errors and no risk.”

This is something very important to communicate to players when they are under pressure. If a team (or a player) is struggling with their passing, even if it’s not a particularly tough serve, get them focused on passing to Target 2. This is the middle of the court near the 3 meter line. That will take some of the pressure off and allow them to relax a bit. It also reduces the chances of an overpass.

“For K1, receivers and setters must be calm. For K2, they need maximum aggression in block and defense. Therefore, when you change phases, players have to change emotional state, especially libero and receivers.”

I’ve not seen the K1/K2 reference before, but I think I get the idea. In serve reception a calm, relaxed state of mind and body is preferred to allow for optimal ball control. In defense, however, quite the reverse is the case. This is where aggression is rewarded. When I coached at Brown we used the term “crazy defense”. It highlighted the idea that back court players should have an aggressive, attacking mentality when it comes to digging the ball. First priority is keeping the ball off the floor. Where you put it is secondary – though obviously not unimportant.

“Pay attention to the big things, not the small things. The players should control the small things, for example block cover. That doesn’t mean to ignore them, just that they are not the priority.”

The coach’s role is to have the big picture in mind, particularly so if one is a head coach with one or more assistants working under them. That means understanding the priorities and making sure to give the correct amount of focus to what needs it. The tendency among coaches is to want to fix what we see is “broken”, but we have to be able to pick our battles and avoid wasting time and effort in areas of relatively low impact.

These particular points aside, it is interesting to observe some of the differences between coaches of men and coaches of women. I ranted a bit about this before, but there are aspects to each gender’s play which force coaches to take different views on things. One of those is overhead passing. It is much more common in the men’s game than the women’s. As Paul Sunderland – former US national team member, now broadcaster – once commented during a USA-Brazil women’s match, the height of the net has implications for how balls can be passed. The lower women’s net allows for a flatter trajectory. That makes it harder to take the ball with the hands. A flat ball coming in tends to be a flat ball going out. That, and the generally lower jump serve velocities, encourages much more float serves on the women’s side.

I bring this up because one or two of Bagnoli’s comments, which you can read in Mark’s post, have a bit of a men’s coach slant to them. Someone who only coaches men might not pick up on them.

Providing meaningful feedback

Mark Lebedew pointed out a couple interesting posts by blogger Hugh on the subject of feedback (here and here). Being good at providing meaningful feedback is definitely a key coaching skill. This is true both on an individual level and on a team basis. It’s something very dynamic because every team and every player is different. As coaches we need to constantly adapt. We have to be able to provide the right feedback at the right time consistently. It is a massive part of our communication.

On the positive side

I will readily admit that getting better at providing positive feedback or praise has been a long-term developmental need of mine.There were times I think players were semi-convinced that I only ever saw them make mistakes. It’s not true, of course. It was just the case that when they were doing something incorrectly I was there to try to get it fixed. No doubt that resulted in more of that kind of thing than “good job” type comments. And in fact I only stepped in if I was seeing the same mistake repeated.

Likely my positive feedback shortcomings come from the fact that I personally am not the sort who ever really cared about hearing what I’m doing well. That stuff I can generally figure out for myself. I want to know how I can get better, so the positive stuff doesn’t carry much weight. Ironically, that has probably made me quite good at avoiding the sorts of issues Hugh brings up regarding parents and coaches being uselessly positive with their feedback.

Obviously, not everyone is like me, though. Over the years I’ve learned that I need to be more conscious of providing positive feedback. That definitely isn’t to say I now offer a steady stream of praise. That most definitely isn’t the case. No one will ever accuse me of being a cheerleader type coach. I will not say “good job” whenever a player simply meets expectations. They need to earn it by doing something that takes them to a new level in some way. I do, however, try to make sure I positively reinforce what I talk with them about doing developmentally – “good hand position”, “nice fast arm swing”, etc.

Now, having said that, there are times when being positive about just meeting expectations is a motivational requirement. This comes at times when players are frustrated or down on themselves. In those cases they often struggle to see that they are actually doing at least some things well. That puts us coaches in a position where we need to try to get their mindset from “half-empty” to “half-full”. Using praise in this fashion doesn’t work very well, however, if we are already providing positive feedback for every little thing they do. It loses its impact in the same way more yelling by a coach who already yells all the time tends not to change anything.

Criticism without correction

And to the latter point, criticism can be just as useless as praise if not done properly. It’s not constructive if there’s no corrective element. Telling a player they need to pass better is stating something that’s probably pretty obvious. Telling them they need to change their platform angle or communicate seem responsibilities better is much more helpful. This is especially true if it links to something you’ve worked with them on previously.

As much as possible I provide 2-way feedback – what is being done well and where improvements can be made – in as objective a fashion as possible to let the players see the path forward I have in mind for them. This is true in training, meetings, and time outs. Sometimes one side or the other needs more of a focus. Good coaching is knowing when that’s the case. Great coaching is being able to also deliver the right words and tone to motivate players as dictated by the situation.

How important is blocking?

There’s a forum thread at Volley Talk on the subject of the influence of blocking on results. A blog post which suggests blocking may not be that important motivated it. Specifically, blocking is said to be the facet of the game least correlated to wins and losses. The post offers the 2012 University of Oregon women’s team as a prime example. That team played in the NCAA Division I national championship game, but actually was at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 conference in blocks per set during the regular season. Clearly, blocking isn’t all that important!

Are you convinced?

This manner of thinking reminds me of other potential misuses of data.

Blocking is not just about blocks

Of course the big issue with this discussion is that blocking isn’t just about blocks which score points. It is also about forcing hitters to change shots. It’s about funneling balls toward our best defenders. And it’s especially about slowing down hard hit balls. Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to objectively measure those sorts of things directly with standard statistics. We can only get there indirectly by looking at opponent hitting percentages and things like that.

What we can do, though, is ask the question what would happen if we don’t block at all. Once one reaches a sufficiently high level where attacking players hit hard and/or accurately enough to overwhelm the defense it clearly becomes the case that blocking is very important. Even a weak block is generally better than no block at all from this point onward.

Blocking because that’s what you’re supposed to do

That said, below that point where offense overwhelms defense in the absence of a block, it is quite legitimate to ask whether blocking is worthwhile. We as coaches – and by extension our players – often get caught up in the feeling like we have to do things a certain way regardless of the situation. This is another element of the discussion in Using 2-touch games to challenge your players in terms of being able to be effective vs. doing things the “right” way.

How often do you see double blocks put up against teams with no strong hitters? How many times do your own teams do it? I am certainly guilty of that. In all honesty, in part I let it be because I see a risk in making things more confusing for the players if I tell them to only single block or to not block at all. Of course, that just means I should train them to deal with that situation.

So at what point do we want players blocking – singly or doubly (or triply)? Should we always have players block in a developmental context?

Using 2-touch games to challenge your players

Once upon a time, Mark Lebedew wrote Hidden Motivation – The Sequel. The title refers to a previous post on the subject of understanding why players make certain decisions. It’s the stuff at the beginning of this one which caught my attention, though.

In the post, Mark talks about how in training he has his team play 2-contact small-sided games. This is for a couple of reasons. One is to shorten the time between contacts. Another is to get them thinking about how to score (and prevent) points in a wide variety of situations. In fact, I watched Mark’s BR Volleys team play games that perhaps were not 1-touch by design, but ended up being that way. If you watched the team play when Mark coached them you saw those guys unafraid to attack from just about anywhere on the court.

I regularly use small-sided games and/or small court games to increase player contacts. I really like the idea of reducing the number of contacts as well. Too often I see players forgo kill opportunities because they feel like they need to play 3-contact volleyball. Ever watch a player set a second ball passed in a perfect attacking position? Then there are times they send a first ball over that ends up being little more than a free ball! One issue at a time, though. 🙂

Granted, a great deal of time and effort is spent drilling the 3-touch mentality into young and developing players. At some point, though, we need to be training them to use their brains. They have to learn to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.

It’s up to us coaches to not only encourage our players to problem solve, but also to ensure they feel comfortable making the errors which are an inevitable part of the learning process.

Thoughts on the Coach vs. Defense Drill

A drill you’ll see a lot of in volleyball pre-game warm-ups is coach vs. defense. By that I mean players are on-court in their defensive positions with a coach attacking at them from near the net. For example, the coach is in position 2, there’s a setter in position 3 with defenders in positions 1, 6, and 5. The coach hits the ball at the defenders, they dig to the setter, and the setter sets the ball to the coach to be attacked again.

There are any number of variations on this structure. You could have fewer or more defenders on the court. There are different ways to have players sub in and out. Sometimes players rotate based on who plays the ball. Regardless, the basic idea is to give the players a defensive warm-up. Maybe there is work on covering exposed space and communicate.


I ran these drills during my earlier collegiate coaching days. I tended not to like them – especially in pre-match warm-ups. In that specific situation I found it only has a downside risk with little in the way of upside. I don’t remember any times when the players finished up coach vs. defense with an improved attitude. I can recall many times when it was a somewhat frustrating experience, though. Maybe they weren’t playing balls in seams properly. Perhaps the intensity level wasn’t as high as it should be. Maybe they were being lazy in their transitions. Whatever the case, it didn’t feel like a good preparation for the match to come.

Beyond that psychological element, I have a few other gripes.

The attack angles aren’t realistic: Unless the coach is very tall, the ball being hit at the player is coming from too low relative to the net for realism. Plus, the coach is significantly closer to the defenders than an attacker would be. This is less an issue for the deeper defenders. For those close by (line), though, it creates real reaction and anticipation issues. It also and/or forces the coach to hit the ball softer.

Lazy movement and transition: Too often when I watch this drill going I see players barely moving on defense. They are meant (in most cases) to work on going from base to defense and back. A lot of time, however, they stay just in defense. Why? Because the ball is always going to the same location. As a result, they don’t need to worry about reacting to the set location.

Too many of the wrong sets: Most of the time in these drills the setter must back-set to the coach who attacks from Zone 2. This is fine for the defenders since it replicates sets to Zone 4 on the other side. It’s a lot of reps for the setter to an area that will probably represent the minority of sets in game situations, though. Firstly, the majority of dug balls will get set to the OH in Zone 4. Secondly, by forcing the setter to set Zone 2 from all angles, you require them to set at difficult angles for would-be hitters. For example, a ball dug toward Zone 1 is generally not a ball a setter should set to a right side attacker because of the angle. This is especially true for a right-handed hitter.

Cutting things off after the dig: In a match situation after the back row players dig, they need to be moving to prepare to cover on a set to a front-row player. In this drill, though, the players instead are immediately looking toward the next attack.

Coach-centric: How you look at this aspect of the drill depends on your focus. The coach is the main driver of this drill in most set-ups. That means they can control things quite a bit – for better or worse. If you’re the only coach, being an active participant in the drill means you’re going to have a hard time watching the fullness of what’s going on. It also means that if you want to make a coaching point you have to completely stop the drill. Not good if you just want to talk with one player.

Getting to success: Many of the ways coaches run coach vs. defense don’t have a positive objective to them. One example a player or a group of players rotate out on an error or the ball hitting the floor. That’s not the kind of confidence-building experience you want the players to have pre-match.

Of course every drill has drawbacks. Whether you use any given one depends on whether the value your players get out of it offsets the negatives. There are a few ways you can potentially improve the coaching vs. defense drill for your purposes, though.

1. Take yourself out: If you have an assistant coach, great! If not, consider using a player in the attacker role. The the latter introduces some other potential issues, but the general idea is to allow you to step back and observe. That will let you coach without necessarily having to stop the entire drill to do so.

2. Have a goal: Instead of running the drill for time or until someone makes a mistake, give the players an objective to reach before they sub out or rotate or whatever. It could be a number of good dig-set reps or a given amount of time without the ball dropping, or whatever suits the needs of your team. The idea here is to give the players a feeling of accomplishment at its finish rather than a sense of failure or punishment.

3. Add in a second attacker: In order to force players to be more disciplined about their defensive movement, make it 2-hitter drill by having hitters in both Zone 2 and Zone 4. Giving the setter two options forces the defenders to return to balance between plays.

4. Attack from over the net: This isn’t something you’ll be able to do in pre-match warm-ups, of course, but it might be something you can work-out in training. Done efficiently, it will allow you to incorporate more realistic setting situations for the setter and coverage movement for the defenders if done effectively.

Those are just some thoughts I have. What do you think? Do you use a version of coach vs. defense that you like? How can we make it better and more realistic?

Let them figure it out for themselves

Mark over @ At Home on the Court flagged this article about US Soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann on his Facebook page. It is critical of the American sports culture of having overly controlling coaches (and parents) in terms of what’s happening on the court/field. Basically, they aren’t willing to just allow players to learn and figure things out for themselves. It got me thinking about my own coaching philosophy and how I developed as a player myself.

I only ever played one season of volleyball with a proper coach. That was back when I was in high school. When I was on the club team at university the captain ran training. Occasionally, we got input from the women’s team coach. For one season we had a little help from one of the local high school coaches. I played in a lot of open-gym sessions and all summer long played doubles. As a result, I was largely self-taught as a volleyball player – figuring things out for myself along the way.

Maybe that contributes to my own coaching style. I tend to shy away from giving my players specific instructions during play. I noted this in my post about calling service targets. Instead, I see my roll as more trying to help them recognize situations. I want them to come up with the solutions on their own. Those lessons are much more likely to stick than if I tell them what to do.

Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with my development as a volleyball player. Maybe it’s more to do with my general orientation as an educator. When I was in high school in Computer Science class I spotted an error in the program the teacher had written up on the board. I raised my hand and told him the program wouldn’t work. He looked and spotted the mistake. Then he laughed and told the class, “John will make a good teacher because he makes you figure out your mistakes,” or something to that effect 🙂

Circling back … is it an American thing to be overly controlling in a sporting context? I need more evidence. You have to look at the way coaches in the popular sports in other nations work. In the US, football and baseball coaches are extremely involved from a play-to-play basis. It’s different for basketball and hockey where the action is more continuous. Plus, we have to consider the training context as well as the competitive one.

To Call Service Targets, or Not to Call Targets

When I was coaching collegiately in the States it was regular practice for myself or one of the other assistants on staff to give target zone signals to our servers before each ball. These targets were selected based on a combination of scouting the opposition in advance and watching developments during the match. As a head coach, though, I have very rarely given serving signals.


It’s a developmental thing, really. I want my players learning to think and act for themselves when it comes to identifying and exploiting the weaknesses of their opponent. I don’t want robot players relying on me for instruction all that time. Even if I were the type to be a controlling coach, volleyball just doesn’t allow for that sort of thing. There is very little time between rallies to communicate with the players from the bench and obviously I can do almost nothing to influence what happens while the ball is in play. The players need to be able make judgements and decisions for themselves.

Does this mean I never provide guidance? Of course not!

There are occasions when I do give a server specific instructions. Usually it’s as a reminder of a game plan we’ve discussed before the match, between sets, or during a timeout. Sometimes it’s as a result of my having noticed something. In the latter case, rather than just giving the server a specific target, I try to get the player to recognize what I’ve seen, which helps them develop their volleyball IQ.

Even still, there is a situational element to the question of providing service targets. Some players just don’t have the accuracy, and asking them to hit a specific zone serves very little purpose. There are also times in matches when it’s best to just let a player do a comfortable serve rather than putting the pressure of hitting a certain target on their shoulders. And sometimes you just simply don’t want to break a player’s concentration by yelling at them to get their attention.

That said, some players prefer to be told where to serve. For them they want serving to be just about executing a skill and nothing more. I don’t care for that view myself because I want players to always be engaging their court vision, but I understand it. Sometimes we just have to deal with things as they are and carry on.

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