Tag Archive for coaching philosophy

Sticking to your training philosophy

A question was posed in a volleyball coaching group on Facebook. It went like this:

“So my team is pushing back on my approach of training ugly and limiting/avoiding singular focus drills. We started out winning our first tournament, but after a series of unfortunate events they don’t believe in it or the process. Any thoughts or helpful advice????”

In case you’re not aware, the “training ugly” concept is one focused on random (game-like) training rather than block (straight reps). It also celebrates making mistakes along the way (think Climbing Mistake Mountain).

As I’ve experienced myself, sometimes the players push back. They say they want more reps. I got it from some of my players at Svedala – mainly with respect to serve reception and defense. To my mind, there are two issues which need addressing.

First, the players probably don’t have an understanding of the benefits of random training over block training. After all, more reps is a good thing, isn’t it? The chart I included in the Going beyond maximizing player contacts post shows a pretty clear advantage to random training. We have a sales job to do in this regard. We need to convince them that one game-like repetition is worth multiple reps that aren’t game-like.

Second, we should be careful that we don’t go too far in terms of creating a high error environment. This is something I addressed in What percentage of reps should be good? The approach in the USA women’s gym is to try to be at about 2 out of 3 reps be successful ones. More than that an you’re not pushing enough. Less than that and you run the risk of leading players into frustration. It’s a balancing act.

Of course at the end of the day being able to show players how much they are improving with your training method would be of considerable value. The problem is this isn’t always very easy to do. And outcomes (like winning tournaments) isn’t really a good measuring stick because of the various influences involved (the competition, player availability, etc.). If you can find a way to do it, though, it will go a long way in helping your credibility with the players, which ultimately is at the core of it all.

Let them play!

There was a player in the Midwestern State squad when I first visited campus in early February 2016 who could not hit a down ball or a back row attack to save her life. I mean she literally did not have the skill.

I found out later the cause of this problem. Her high school coach never let her hit.

I will grant you that she was pretty tiny. It must have been obvious from early on that hitting and blocking weren’t going to be her thing. Genetics put her clearly into the libero/defensive specialist category.

I get that a coach probably isn’t going to have her spend much time in hitting drills and the like. But to not have her even learn how to do a good down ball? Come on! That’s criminal in my book. It’s specialization gone crazy.

First of all, even tiny little defenders sometimes need to use that skill. Heck, sometimes they can even attack the ball outright from the back row if they aren’t libero at the time. So there’s a very clear volleyball reason to teach every player to hit from either standing or jumping.

More importantly, part of what we must be doing as coaching is instilling a love of the game in our players. That’s a whole lot easier to do when you actually let them play!

And this applies to players in other positions as well. Let your setters block. Include your middles in defensive training. Give your pin hitters the opportunity to set. You never know when being able to whip a non-specificity skill out will make the difference between winning and losing.

Being more well-rounded makes players better. It gives them a deeper appreciation of the game and all it entails. It also makes it more fun for them, and that means they may stick with the sport longer.

So please let them just be players instead of positions sometimes.

Guys, I’m not impressed

One Friday during the 2016 season, I went to watch my first ever NCAA men’s volleyball match. I’ve watched them on TV, but I’ve never actually attended one before. That probably sounds a bit pathetic. In my defense, I’ve watched professional matches in Germany, have been to the CEV Champions League Final Four, and went to Poland to watch some of the 2014 World Championships. So it’s not like I’ve never seen high level men’s volleyball in person. And of course I coached the University of Exeter men.

Conveniently, I was hanging out in Long Beach, which was the home of the then #1 ranked Long Beach State (CSULB) team. They hosted a pair of matches that week, with the one on Friday being against #11 UC Irvine. I’d been to the Pyramid before for a Long Beach State women’s alumni match when I was visiting back in 2013. This was a better production in terms of the game day experience, which probably isn’t a surprise.

Long Beach State at the Pyramid

Take a look at the crazy number of guys on the Long Beach bench!

2016-02-19 19.18.23

Between set warm-ups

I was a bit late arriving to the match because of a late start to dinner beforehand. As a result, I missed warm-ups. Between sets, though, the non-starters came out on the court hitting (which I’ve never seen before). In a typical display of male whatever, the setters put the ball on – or even over – the net and the guys saw how high they could bounce the ball. There was no concern about hitting the net.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing. I’m sure it won’t be the last. I wanted to say to the players, “Guys, I’m not impressed.”

What’s the point of this? You will never do this sort of thing in match situation.

It reminded me of things I’ve written about before in terms of warm-ups with respect to throwing the ball and slamming the ball off the floor the way many players do. Needless to say, I’m not a fan.

Structured learning vs. overt teaching

While reading this blog post on the different values of explicit vs. implicit teaching and learning, I got to thinking about some coaching conversations I’ve had.

Let me define those terms. Explicit is what most of us probably think of in terms of the teaching/coaching/learning process. It is about showing or telling someone how to do something and then them going out and doing it. Implicit is more about players figuring out how to do things for themselves. They get an objective, and are left to sort out how to accomplish it.

Once upon a time, I posted on the idea of intrinsic vs. extrinsic development based on something John Kessel wrote. It follows along a very similar thought process as the explicit vs. implicit one outlined above. Both have at their core the idea of allowing players (in our case as coaches) figure things out for themselves.

Admittedly, this is a hard thing for many coaches to handle. Letting our players come up with the best solutions to a given “problem” can feel awfully lazy to someone who believes their role is one of teaching and guiding. We feel like we should be doing something. This goes doubly so when you consider those evaluating us in some fashion or another – owners, athletic directors, board members, parents, media, etc.. You feel like you need to do something to make it look like you’re actually working and not just standing there watching.

The difference is teaching vs. facilitating. If our athletes learn better by finding their own solutions to the problems presented by game situations, then it behooves us as coaches to assist them in that process. You don’t do this by telling them what to do, but by putting them in situations to help them come to the desired conclusion. In other words, we create a structure in which the desired learning takes place.

A learning structure example

Let me provide an example of something I use in this way. The exercise called The Hard Drill is basically a cooperative back row game which serves many purposes. On the physical side, it works on back row attacking and defending against such. Depending on how you set it up, it can also work on setting in an out-of-system context.

More importantly – at least for me in how I use the drill – are the mental aspects.

This is very much a “beat the drill” type of exercise. The players need to learn how to most efficiently accomplish the objective. There are a couple of key things involved in that. One is to focus on setting to only the most effective hitters. The second is to attack mainly to the best diggers from a ball-control perspective. Finally, there is understanding when you are in good position to go for a strong swing and when to just keep the ball in play. You can also add in good communication so that players know what to do with respect to these three factors.

Now, as a coach who wants to see the drill completed as quickly as possible, you could tell the players to only set to certain hitters. You can tell the hitters only to attack to certain defenders. That would certainly speed things up. But would there be any real learning benefit? What happens next time you do the drill with different combinations of players? Will you once more tell them exactly what to do? And the next time? Can you tell players exactly what to do in every game situation?

Yes, it can definitely be a challenge watching the team struggle with this drill. It’s tough to see them get frustrated if they have to keep starting over. We have to resist the urge to go in and “fix” things, though. Instead, we should guide them toward the right solutions – toward the thought processes we want to instill. Instead of telling them what’s wrong or what to do, we should be asking them so they can figure it out for themselves. That leads to better long-term retention and cross-over application in other situations.

Believe me, this can sometimes be a slow process. And there are times when you have to really do a lot of asking and guiding and hinting to get them thinking and acting the way you want. Once you get them there, though, you’ll find it worth the effort.

They might surprise you!

Your players – unless they are very new to the sport – might know more than you give them credit for, especially from their own perspectives. Let them solve things for themselves and you might be pleasantly surprised at the solutions they develop. If nothing else, they are likely to have more confidence in applying those solutions later.

Let them figure it out on the court

Keeping the theme from this post, I came across another article from the non-volleyball world (unfortunately, no longer available online). Football (American) in particular. This news story was about the turnaround experienced by the Houston Texans during the 2015-16 season. They started the year 2-5 and were 8-7 at the time of its writing. Head coach Bill O’Brien attributed the turnaround to a change in training philosophy.

“When it’s 11-on-11, it’s the players’ practice,” O’Brien explained on Monday. “The coaches, George and RAC, they’re on the side and they just signal the play in and the players practice. I think we made a decision to do that, so that we could help everybody understand what we were trying to do better because let the players figure it out.”

He was further quoted:

“We’re not going to be out there on the game field to figure it out for them, so let’s let them figure it out on the practice field,” O’Brien said. “I think the players have done a great job of that. Our leaders have done a good job of that.”

Anyone who’s ever been in my gym for training will notice that I’m not a big talker. A feature of my coaching philosophy is the more I talk, the less they train. By extension, the less they learn. Also, the more I talk the less I can gather information and make assessments for future use. Further, if I constantly tell players what to do, they won’t learn to develop their own solutions (to use a phrase from Julio Velasco). This is something I wrote about before in Let them figure it out for themselves.

Less instructing, more facilitating

I think the result of this mentality – at least for me – is that one becomes a facilitator of learning rather than being a teacher. By that I mean I set up situations related to things I believe we need to work on. Then I let the players come up with their own solutions to the problems posed rather than providing my own.

Does that mean I never offer any input into the process? Of course not!

If I see something I think should be addressed or I believe I can give the solution development process a push, I step in. Most of the time that’s to talk with a specific player. Sometimes, though, I must address the whole group. Either way, it’s quick and I get them right back to work.

Related to this is something from the Jan De Brandt interview for Volleyball Coaching Wizards. Jan made the observation that women’s teams tend not be be as creative in their play as men’s teams. I can understand where this comes from. In my experience female athletes tend to be more literal than their male counterparts. They do what they’re told! 🙂

The downside of that is they sometimes just do what they’re told, not some variation on it. I chafed a bit at Jan’s comments in that regard because my team at Svedala was the exact opposite. They constantly worked with each other to come up with new ways to do things. I’d like to think at least some of that was down to my coaching style of letting them work things out for themselves, as Coach O’Brien started doing.

Thinking on the subject of calling serve zones

volleyball serve

Jason at Court and Classroom wrote a laugh out loud post on calling service zones for our players. It’s worth a read, mainly because so much of it is in the “sad,but true” category.

For example, with respect to calling for a serve to Zone 3:

Area 3: This serve will turn into an absurdly easy lollipop serve to area 6, allowing the opposing team to violently impose their will upon us, and ensure that we don’t call ever call for a short serve again (until the next match).

Comic relief aside, serving strategy is often on my mind. As I wrote in To Call Service Targets, or Not to Call Targets, I’m not generally a zone caller. This is a change. When I coached at Brown I called them all the time. Things are different now.

These days, in a developmental situation, I like to work with players to be more aggressive with their “comfortable” serve. Then we work on expanding their repertoire. I find in competitive situations, players are often more likely to produce successful results with their “best” serves to a non-optimal zone than their weaker serve to a better target.

That said, I understand the value of a coach calling serve zones. It reinforces a stated plan and allows the coach to adapt to what they’re seeing in the match. I just don’t want robot players, though. I want ones who think for themselves and can create their own solutions.

While at Svedala I didn’t call signals, aside from sometimes giving a player a specific instruction (normally something like “first serve is good”) or a reminder of which passer we’re after. My focus instead was on keeping our serving focus in huddles on the target(s) we pointed out in our scouting – or a target which has turned out to be particularly good for us in that match.

That said, I can see how I might look to signals as target and strategy reinforcement options for some teams.

Rules for coaching volleyball from John Kessel

John Kessel has developed and posted what he’s calling his “10 New Commandments of Volleyball”. It’s actually commandments for coaching, not something more broad in terms of the overall sport or anything like that, despite the inclusive title. They are worth reviewing in full. Here they are in brief:

  1. Be demanding, but not demeaning
  2. Use the net
  3. Include back row hitting in each training
  4. Develop 2-side players (can play left or right side of the court)
  5. Catch them doing things right
  6. Train more in terms of reading than technique
  7. Ask questions, don’t tell them the answer
  8. Train the mentality of “good errors”
  9. Teach players to use both sides of their body
  10. Make things as game like as possible.

I’ve definitely written before about making things as game like as possible, which I think ties in with using the net (here, here, here). I’ve also talked about the question of good vs. bad errors and encouraging the mentality of being accepting of mistakes (here, here). The idea of increasing the amount of reading is something I posted on earlier as well.

Including back row attacking in training is something I do a lot of myself with my teams, and have done for years. In fact, I had my Svedala team do back row swings for the pin hitters in the first minute of warm-ups. I go that route to get players to reach and focus on hitting deep before hitting on the net.

Two of the more thought-provoking commandments, to my mind, are the ones related to players training both sides of the court and both sides of the body. I regularly make use of small-sided games. They feature players playing both sides of the court. I’m not sure if I have really thought much about that from an intentional perspective, though.

This coaching action – fair or foul?

In the match I coached on Saturday the opposing coach did something. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it.

It was late in the 4th set. We were up 2-1 and leading. It might have even been match point (24-23). I can’t recall exactly and don’t have the score sheet at hand.

Anyway, they were out of timeouts. The coach called a sub to go in, but she went to the sideline holding a paddle with the number of no player currently on the court. Substitution errors like this are team delay faults, and thus earn a delay warning. During the ensuing pause as the score table recorded the warning, the other coach could be seen grinning in our direction, making it clear he had intentionally made the substitution error as a way to get a defacto timeout.

Brilliant move or unsportsmanlike?

It didn’t work, by the way.

What type of defense do you run?

I was asked by a reader what type of defense I use with my team and my thoughts on the subject.

Generally speaking, my starting point is the perimeter defense. This is a structure where the back row defenders play toward the edges of the court. That’s where most of the hard attacked balls go when there’s a decent block. Some also call this a middle-back defense. I start there because it’s something most players have played and understand well.

From there, though, I think about things in two ways.

Personnel

There are certain player requirements to play a perimeter defense (or any other, for that matter). For example, the defender in 6 needs to be a good reader and able to move well laterally. Not every player is suited to that role. For example, I had an Exeter player who was very aggressive in attacking the ball played in front of her. She did not, however, move laterally well. That mandated she play defense in 5 rather than 6.

You’re also thinking about things like your block and potential back row attack. When I coached at Brown in the libero’s early days, we didn’t do much by way of back row attacking. We generally played our OHs in 5 and our Libero in 6. The idea there was that the OHs were basically specialists in digging cross-court balls. We made a change, though, because our block channeled balls cross-court and we wanted our best digger – our libero – in position to play them.

Opposition

Sometimes you want to change things up to better defend against certain teams or types of attacks. The rotation defense in which the defender in 1 one covers tips, and the defender in 6 rotates toward the line, can be used to defend against teams that play a lot of shots. We did this at Exeter against weaker teams at times. At Brown we actually used a type of rotation defense against teams that liked to attack line to have a better digger in that position. At Svedala we looked to use a rotation defense when we had our smaller second string setter playing to have more line defense when she was front row.

Of course you have to consider all the implications. Using a rotation defense tends to get your front row OH out of having to play balls way into the court – which makes it hard for them to then attack. At the same time, though, it likely means your setter having to play more first balls.

The bottom line

At the end of the day you want to put your players in the positions they are best suited to play within the context of a general block-defensive philosophy related to what you expect to see from the teams you play. Consider how you view the objective of defense and position your players accordingly.

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