Tag Archive for coaching philosophy

Providing players room to create

There’s an article you should read. It’s an interesting discussion of how much coaches seem to appreciate creativity in their players, yet how they do so much to limit it. The article is aimed at business managers, but speaks from a sports perspective. Here’s a quote that hits the main point:

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control.

This doesn’t just apply to professional environments. It happens anywhere coaches look to constrain player freedom. I’m not talking about creating a dictatorial state here, mind you. Some coaches certainly act in that fashion, but that’s not really where I’m going. Think instead about coaches teaching specific techniques. Think about coaches employing very structured systems of play.

I doubt most coaches in those latter categories think of themselves as constraining their players. My guess is they think they will simply be the most effective ways to go. What they are doing, though, is providing solutions to players. They aren’t letting the players find their own solutions. The latter is where creativity comes in.

This is why it’s great to just let you players play at times. They might surprise you with the solutions they develop.

Coaching is its own art

Volleyball Coach

There is an article about some issues troubling the Australian national cricket team that Mark Lebedew brought to my attention. Mark, being an Aussie, is much more knowledgeable about the sport than I am. As an American, I wasn’t raised on the sport. I can follow it in broad strokes, but lack the more nuanced understanding of those who grew up with it. This article, however, is less about cricket and more about coaching. That’s more in my wheel house. 🙂

There’s a quote in the article I think is worth sharing. It comes from a highly experienced coach named Trent Woodhall, who seems not to get a lot of respect in certain quarters because he isn’t a former high level player.

“[But] coaching is its own art. It has to be respected and it has to be learnt, because just like players are born to score 12,000 Test runs, coaches are born to be elite coaches.”

Now, we can debate whether one is born to coach or not. The basic point he makes here, though, is that coaching is it’s own thing separate from playing. One need not have been a great player – or even a particularly good player – to be a great coach. You can find way more examples of outstanding coaches with uninspiring playing resumes than you’ll find great players who go on to become great coaches.

The article goes on to say:

Woodhill is intent on emphasising that Australia has some excellent ex-players who can, or have, transitioned to become great coaches. But on the whole, the cricket community’s natural conservatism has led it to seek answers from the rear view mirror.

When he talks about the rear view mirror, Woodhill is referring to players coaching based on their own experience. In the interview he did for Volleyball Coaching Wizards, the Canadian National Team coach for the 2016 Olympics, Glenn Hoag, mentioned a quote from Julio Velsaco. The legendary Argentinian coach said that coaches must kill the player inside of them.

Think about the implications of that for a moment.

The article also goes on to talk about the impact of over-coaching. By that I mean not allowing players to develop their own solutions to the problems the game presents. This is something I wrote about here, here, and here.

Definitely give the article a read – even if you have no idea what they’re talking about when discussing cricket. 🙂

Convincing players random is better than block

John Kessel is a major advocate of making things as game-like as possible where volleyball training is concerned. In one of his blog posts he talks about the “false confidence” block training (simply doing reps) can create in players – and coaches. No doubt, John will continue to bang that drum. It’s a major feature of the USA Volleyball training philosophy, and shows through in the CAP program. It definitely showed through when I did my CAP III course.

I’ve done my fair share of that as well. Going beyond maximizing player contacts is one example. As game-like as possible is another. Episode #17 of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast also has block vs. random training as its theme.

Here’s the question, though.

How do we convince players that more game-like training is better?

Once, during a serving and passing drill, the Midwestern State setters took turns setting off of the pass. One asked why they did not just do one setter at a time. She wanted more repetition “to develop a rhythm”. My response was she never set two balls in a row in a game. She started to push back, but I told her she always does something in between. There’s hitter coverage and blocking and defense, among other things.

That mollified this particular player. I’ve had others on different teams, though, who felt like block reps were better than game-like ones. One of them once told me they let her pass without having to think about anything else. She was an OH who obviously had to think about attacking as well in actual game play. Plus, there’s that pesky issue of dealing with seam responsibility when passing next to another player.

Like in anything else, we have a mixture of personalities among our players. Some are open-minded and accept what you say. They are at least willing to try. At the other end is the close-minded group. They fight you on things. They say stuff like, “We’ve always done it like this,” or “This way works for me.”

It’s fine if those players aren’t key performers or team leaders. You can marginalize them if they persist with the negative attitude. If they are leaders, though, it creates a major problem. They say things like “This is stupid.” That has serious negative consequences for both team chemistry and coach authority. It cannot be tolerated.

So, how do we convince the more resistant players that more game-like training is superior to blocked training? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts or experience.

Match-day serve & pass questions

This is an open question to especially college volleyball coaches, but potentially also to professional volleyball coaches.

Do you do a serve & pass session on match day?

If so, I’ve got a few follow-up questions.

Do you do it both home and away?

How long do you go?

What do you do?

When do you do it relative to the start of the match?

I ask because I can’t help but wonder at some things.

Serve & Pass routines

It is regular practice in the Lone Star Conference (NCAA Division II, mostly Texas) for visiting teams to do 30 minutes on-court prior to the match. Generally, this is done in the hour prior to the 60-minute match countdown. For example, if the match is at 6pm, the visiting team might do a session from 4:00 to 4:30. Some teams look to do them earlier in the day.

One of the other conferences in our area has a specific arrangement. The home team gets 75 minutes before match start to 60 minutes (so 15 minutes). The visiting team then gets 60 minutes from the start to the 45 minute mark. After that it’s shared until the 19 minute mark when the 4-4-5-5-1 begins.

These sorts of arrangements are not unusual in my experience. It was the same way when I coached in the Ivy League. No doubt this sort of thing happens all over the country. When I coached in Sweden, we did a serve & pass session on home match days. For Saturday matches, it happened in the latter morning, with team lunch to follow (we played at 2:00 or 3:00). Visiting teams didn’t usually have time, though there was never an issue with jumping on the court before the 60-minute countdown started if the home team wasn’t on the court.

Serve & Pass, then full team warm-up?

One of the things I find curious is when a team does a fairly active serve & pass time, then roll almost directly into a full pre-match warm-up. Aren’t the players already warm?

I saw a team doing a fairly intense 45 minutes (well at least the end was fairly intense), then 20 minutes later start pre-match with a dynamic warm-up.

Why do that? Is it a case of being married to the idea that pre-match warm-up must always be done a certain way?

Why Serve & Pass on match day?

The next question I have is the value of doing a serve & pass session. To be clear, I’m talking about a session on match day, not something the day before. The automatic response from coaches, I’m guessing, is that it gives the players a chance to acclimate themselves to the gym. I’m also thinking there’s a secondary motivation of getting extra practice time – especially time that doesn’t count toward NCAA limits in the case of US college volleyball.

So where’s the trade-off between the value of getting those reps and the added physical and mental exertion on match day? Players have to mentally ramp themselves up for the serve & pass session, then obviously have the physical workload for that period of time. Then they have to wind back down, recover, and do it all over again for the match.

Are the extra touches worth the fact that the players probably won’t be at full 100% for the match?

I’d honestly like to hear some opinions.

Post-match team talks

During the 2016 women’s college season I witnessed a team having a lengthy post-match talk. It came after they lost a match to my team, Midwestern State. Interestingly, it looked like the assistant coach was the one doing most of the talking, while the head coach stood by fairly quietly.

This wasn’t a ranting, raving type of coach talk, though there was definitely a negative tone. I only heard bits and pieces. They made it sound like the focus was on mindset – at least during that part of the talk. The real standout about the meeting to me was its length. That, and the fact that it took place in the corner of the gym rather than in a locker room.

I’ve seen some ugly, long-winded post-match team talks in my time. Some involved teams I coached. Others involved teams I coached against. In the former, very rarely did I think that sort of meeting was productive (see Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive?)

In the case of witnessing a team scolding, my reaction comes in two forms. On the one hand, sometimes I feel bad for them. When I coached at Exeter, our men’s team beat a team from Northern Ireland in a playoff match. That coach, who seemed like a nice guy, laid into them for a ridiculously long time afterwards. I felt really bad for them. So did the guys on my team, who wanted to invite the other team out for a post-match pint (they do that in England).

The alternative reaction is more a competitive one. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to beating a team so badly that they get yelled at afterwards. It’s kind of like targeting a single opposing player to the point they eventually have to be subbed out. It’s a psychological victory above and beyond the one on the scoreboard.

Can’t help but wonder if coaches who yell at their team in public realize this? Or if they’re just trying to embarrass their players.

Teaching center-line passing vs. platform angle

My partner on the Inside College Volleyball book, Matt, answered a question on his blog about passing technique. The question came from a mother and is as follows:

For years, my 13 year old has been taught to “get around the ball” to pass, rather than reaching left or right for it. So today, she went to a high-powered libero training clinic where the teacher told her essentially the opposite. It really blew her mind because the instructor just kept on her about it. Is there an absolute correct way to receive a dig or serve, or is this a disputable matter?

Matt’s response I found very appropriate:

My belief is correct passing technique is a combination of footwork and platform.  In a perfect volleyworld, the passer wants to move his/her feet so the ball is centered into the stomach.  But, because of the geometry of volleyball, the platform must be angled to redirect the ball to the setting area (depending upon where the serve was received).

In general, I wanted my passers to move their feet to get behind the ball, and then keep their arms no wider than their hips to redirect the ball to the setter. Depending on how tough the serve was and how much they were able to move their feet, this would impact how much right or left (from the centerline of the belly button) they moved their arms.

I think Matt’s second sentence hits the mark – in a perfect world. In other words, if the player has time to move and get into a stable passing posture, then you’d probably like to see them pass center-line. It reduces variability, which should improve consistency.

But, the world is rarely perfect

A center-line passing technique, though, goes out the window once serves get tougher. Obviously, that means serves with more pace. They simply give the passer less time to move. Watch top level men’s volleyball. There is just about zero time to move to take the ball center-line against a jump serve.

Importantly, we have to also consider late-moving float serves. It’s all well and good to have the ball centered on your bellybutton. If the ball drops and/or curves away as it’s approaching, though, there’s little you can do to get your body there.

There is also the question of seam responsibility considerations.

Should we teach center-line?

If players eventually have to be able pass away from center-line, does it make sense to spend a lot of time training it? Personally, I think we need to focus much more on platform angle. I see so many issues with that among players at levels where they should be more aware.

I can understand the value of teaching center-line passing to young players, though. The biggest issue you usually get at that level is players not moving. They tend to want to just stand in one place and wait for the ball to come to them. Training them to pass center-line encourages movement – especially at a time when serves tend not to be overly challenging. It also encourages them to not be lazy.

That said, once you have players moving to the ball unconsciously, I think a shift has to be made to focus on platform angle as the key (I won’t get too far into the weeds with the specifics there).

Don’t just take my word for it. When I interviewed Tom Tait for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project he specifically talked about this subject. Not only is Tom the father of Penn State volleyball (men and women), he was a professor of exercise science and coaching. In other words, he knows what he’s talking about. The part of Tom’s interview where he speaks about center-line vs. platform angle is featured in the 2nd Wizards book.

Thinking about the player’s future

Here’s a major issue for us coaches. There is a strong tendency to coach our players based on what works best at our level. In other words, coaching to win matches. After all, our status is closely tied to how our teams perform at our current level (see Coaching youngsters like college players for a discussion this in terms of specialization).

The problem with that, however, is it doesn’t necessarily prepare players for the next level. Are we doing kids any favors if we require them to pass center-line beyond a certain level of introduction? What happens when they reach the level where they face tougher serves?

Something to think about.

Sometimes old ideas are the best ideas

A lot of good ideas have been around in the world for a long time, getting recycled periodically. They pop up in different forms. New perspectives are applied based on whatever the current generation needs. The packaging may change, but the underlying idea remains.

I wrote about one of these ideas a while ago. It’s the concept of becoming progressively unnecessary as a coach. I don’t take credit for that. It came from John Kessel. He himself picked it up at a USA Hockey seminar. There it was presented as coming from teaching.

Let’s really wind things back, though.

Here’s a quote attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Lao Tzu lived during about the 5th century BC. That means this concept is around 2500 years old. I don’t think it’s very likely Lao Tzu thought of it all by himself, though. Leadership in human endeavors goes back much further than that. No doubt someone else before him in ancient history thought the same.

Consider this when you come across a shiny new idea in coaching. Training ugly, the game teaches the game, mindset, and all of these related things are tossed around in our discussions.I’m not knocking any of them. Instead I’m saying they’ve been around for a long time. They maybe had different terms associated with them, but the concepts are nothing new.

My point in all this is that we don’t need to look for some new concept to become better coaches. Most of the best ones have been around for a while. We should definitely keep up with the research, but we should also not brush aside “old” ideas. There’s a good chance tomorrow’s new latest thing will be a repacking of a well-worn idea of the past.

Just look at the movie business! 🙂

Trusting players to take responsibility

There was a piece on Bloomberg (now behind a pay wall) about abusive coaching. The subject coach is a volunteer. The author heard him say some pretty vile stuff to a youth boys team. The author of the article basically called it child abuse. He went on to think about why parents allow that sort of thing. Fear topped the list of likely reasons. “It worked for Coach X,” is a justification.

Rather than focus on the abusive behavior, I want to talk about a quote from the piece:

What I’ve noticed — and yes, this is anecdotal — is that the best teams with the best coaches seem to be have the calmest sidelines. Rather than shouting specific instructions at players — and chastising them for every mistake — these coaches have already taught their players what to do. They trust these kids to take responsibility. Sure, the kids mess up, but there is a lot to be said for playing without fear. They play better, learn to be instinctive, and — gasp — have more fun.

The last couple of sentences really caught my attention. I don’t think a calm sideline is totally necessary. Some coaches are inherently animated in a positive fashion. That’s totally fine with me. Others are not. That’s fine too.

What I really like is players who can make mistakes without fear. If you read my Climbing Mistake Mountain post, or Learning from mistakes rather than fixating on them, you know how I feel about encouraging the willingness to make mistakes. It’s something we must instill in our players.

A parallel conversation is coaches providing specific instructions during play. I wrote my feelings on that in Calling plays from the bench. If we tell them what to do during play, how do they learn to think for themselves? This is especially true for youth players.

What about coaches doing their main work in training? That is an interesting topic for debate. Is training more important than match-day work? That is the subject of the Coaching vs Training Volleyball Coaching Wizards Podcast episode.

Some things to think about as you develop your coaching philosophy.

Talking serving aggression and effectiveness

volleyball serve

Alan at VolleyMetrics wrote a post talking about serving effectiveness. It discusses the trade-off between aggressive serves and error control. This is something I wrote about before, perhaps most directly in the Serving: Go for it or get it in? post.

In the 2016 NCAA men’s final match between Ohio State and BYU there was an interesting serving dynamic. Ohio State was aggressive throughout the match. They made a number of errors early on. Eventually, though, they settled down. That kept BYU under constant pressure. It reached the point where the Cougars really struggled to receive well. As you can imagine, OSU had a lot of transition point scoring opportunities.

Flipping things around, BYU actually seemed to get quite conservative in serve. They were pretty aggressive at the outset, but as the match progressed you saw more and more of the jump serve equivalent of lollipop serves. The result was good passing for OSU. That allowed them to run their MBs and score virtually at will.

Alan talked about this sort of trade-off in his post with respect to UCLA playing against BYU previously in the season. Do you rip your serves? Or do you take something off to not miss, knowing the opposition will be more effective in their sideout offense?

During the finals broadcast, commentary guy Kevin Barnett made comments about how the BYU program adhered to the Gold Medal Squared (GMS) philosophy. He described it as, among other things, one which espouses minimizing errors. I’ve yet to attend a GMS clinic or presentation, so I can’t speak to that personally. I couldn’t help but wonder if a bit of that might have been part of BYU’s downfall.

Now, before the GMS proponents reading this get upset, let me explain.

I do not blame the GMS philosophy itself here. I speak instead to the conservatism that seemed to take hold of BYU’s play as the match progressed. Some of this may have been from the GMS influence. It could just as easily have been a function of game planning. Maybe it was the psychological reaction of players and coaches to the pressure of the situation.

BYU was touted as statistically the best blocking team in the country in 2016. Certainly at the outset they showed that strength. They made it very hard on the OSU pin hitters by regularly putting up big triple blocks. I can’t help but wonder if that led the team to say something to the effect of “We’re blocking really well, so let’s keep the errors down and allow our block to do what it does best.”

And it might not have even been a conscious thing.

As I wrote about in Looking at serving and blocking together, there is a definitely link between the amount of pressure you put on a team with your serving and the effectiveness of your block. BYU’s block was a lot less effective when OSU was able to pass well and run their middles. So if there was that mentality of keeping the errors down, it backfired.

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