Tag Archive for communication

Whose ball? Seam responsibilities

In the post On player communication I talk about the challenge of players communicating with each other on the court. It in part brings up the question of whether players really need to talk during play. That’s from the perspective of player responsibility. In other words, whose ball is it?

With that in mind, I will share my own personal basic philosophy on seam responsibility. I’m happy to hear about different approaches.

I take as my starting point the idea that the person with the shortest distance to go for the ball should take it. After all, it will take them less time to get there. Flipping that around, it means the player farther away takes the deeper ball. Generally speaking, it’s easier to go sideways or forward than to have to try to go backwards to play the ball.

Here’s what that looks like in terms of serve receive. The star is the location of the server.

So as you can see, the player who is closest to the origin of the serve is the one who takes the short seam between players. The one further away then takes the deep seam.

And here’s what that same principle looks like from the perspective of a standard perimeter defense. Again, the star is the attack point.

Of course you may use a different type of defense or locate your defenders differently in the perimeter scheme. The concept remains the same, though. The important thing is that players understand that the principle applies regardless of court position. They need to know instinctively who has the short seam and who has the deep one in all situations based on their relative positions. If they do you will drastically reduce the number of balls that land between players who are standing there looking at each other.

Now, understanding seam responsibility when in serve reception or in defense is only part of the equation. There are other “seam” situations that should have clear rules. Here are a couple that come immediately to mind.

  • Who plays the third ball over between a front row player backing up and a back row player moving forward?
  • Who takes a ball that is set between two attackers?
  • When does a middle hitter take a serve?

Then there are other situations which influence who takes a ball, such as the setter releasing on a free or down ball. I’m sure you can think of a few of them.

The point is, the players should understand these structural elements of how they play. There will always be situations that don’t fit into nice, neat structure, but if the players know the principles, they can deal with things effectively. When they reach that point, talking becomes less about communicating in-play and more about communicating between plays.

Reversion to the mean and why you need to understand it

The term “reversion to the mean” or “regression to the mean” may sound complicated, but it really isn’t. In statistics the term mean is the same as saying average. Reversion or regression in this context just indicates moving back to. Put it all together and you get moving back to average. Pretty straightforward, right?

Why is this important for you to understand as a coach?

Because it speaks to how we react to players under- or over-performing. Even more, it speaks to the cause we link to the effect of a player doing better or worse in the future.

Let me use the following graph to explain.

What you see above is a fairly typical bell curve. It indicates the likelihood of something. In this case, let’s think in terms of a volleyball player’s performance. The horizontal axis is performance from very bad to very good. The vertical axis is probability, from low to high. As you move along the bell curve line you get the odds the player performs at a given level. The odds are low that they perform either very poorly or very well, while the odds are relatively high that they perform somewhere around their average.

Here’s where the reversion or regression part comes in.

Look at the red X. That indicates a pretty bad performance, right? Notice I put a green arrow pointing to the right next to the X. Why? Because, all else being equal, chances are the player will do better in their next opportunity.

Similarly, you’ll see that I put a red arrow pointing left next to the green check mark at a pretty good performance point. Odds are the player won’t be as good next time.

Think about what all this means for how you react to the player. If they just had a bad performance and are probably going to have a good one next time out because the odds favor it, will you yelling at them or punishing them accomplish anything?

Flip that around. If the player just did very well and is probably not going to do as well next time, does it make sense to get overly excited about it?

Here’s a video where John Kessel from USA Volleyball talks about this using a basketball analogy.

So chances are what we say or do is not the cause that leads to the effect of the player doing better or worse next time.

All else not equal?

You’ll note that I said expectations of future performance were, all else equal, that they’d be somewhere around the average. That “all else equal” bit is important and is part of the side of coaching that’s likely more art than science. How you react to a player’s performance has to be linked to whether there is an underlying cause or not. If there is an underlying cause, then what you’re seeing actually reflects the player operating with a different performance distribution than their usual one.

Let’s say a player is sick, as an easy example. If a player is not feeling well then you will think of their expectations in terms of a “performance when sick” curve rather than the general one we’ve been talking about up to now. It features a distribution somewhat left of the usual one. Average performance in this case is probably going to be at a level that would be considered poor by the players’ normal standards.

There are, of course, lots of possible reasons why a player’s performance distribution curve could be temporarily shifted left of where it usually is. Part of your job as a coach is to try to find a way to get it shifted back. That’s not realistic with a sick or injured player, but if it’s one who’s distracted, lacking motivation, or something like that, then it’s something you can address.

From the opposite perspective, maybe a player performs better when mom is at the match. Their performance curve when she’s in attendance is to the right of where you normally see it. From a coaching perspective, you should then be looking at how you can make that shift permanent – aside from assuring Mom’s at every match, of course.

Coach induced shifts

If a player is just having an off day with no real cause, you could actually make things worse by yelling at or punishing them. If it negatively impacts their mood, focus, etc. then you just became the source of the kind of left shift in their performance distribution I talked about above. The same could possibly be true if you excessively praise a player for a good performance. They might start feeling the pressure of expectations.

There are, of course, players who do better after some sharp words or when they know Coach is happy with how they’ve done. This is where knowing your players becomes extremely important.

Starters vs. Subs

It’s worth noting that generally speaking starters are the players with a higher mean level of performance. On average, they perform better than the non-starters. That’s why they are starters. This then ties in with the question of substitutions if a starter is under-performing or the team isn’t doing well.

I should note that players don’t all have the same performance distribution shape. Here’s an example of three different distributions with the same average.

Notice you have the one we’ve been using up to now, which is the one with the 2nd highest peak. You can also see a higher peaked, but more narrow distribution. That indicates a very consistent performer. The last one is wider and flatter, which is what you’d see from a player with very wide performance swings. They can be exceedingly good, but also extremely poor.

Here’s something else worth looking at.

In this case we have players with different averages. The better one has that narrow, tall distribution of the very consistent player. The one with the lower average has a broader range of performance. Generally speaking, the one with the higher average will outperform the other. We can see, though, that there is a little part of the other player’s distribution that goes further to the right. That means sometimes, though not often, they will be the better player of the two.

Raising the mean over time

At the end of the video above John talks briefly about how the job of the coach is the raise a player’s (and team’s) average performance. This simple graph is a representative of that.

You can see in the diagram how the distributions progressively shift to the right. Remember, the horizontal access is performance, so this shows someone getting better over time. In fact, if you look at the right-most curve it does not overlap at all with the left-most curve. That’s a situation where on their worst day a player will do better now than they could ever have done in their initial situation. Think about an 18 year-old player compared to their 14 year-old self. Naturally, the rightward shifts in the performance distribution become smaller as the player gains mastery and experience.

Our job as coaches is, through training and other developmental work, to keep the player’s mean performance rising. How we most effectively do that is the subject of other conversations.

Timeouts

Mark Lebedew and others have provided research into the effectiveness of timeouts. Basically, they find little or none (sideout percentages after timeouts are basically the same as their average). This is another area of coaching where reversion to the mean is a possible explanation for what we think we see. And of course there’s also the question of confirmation bias, but that’s a different subject.

Note: If you want to learn more about the concept of reversion to the mean and other things related to how we humans incorrectly link cause and effect and otherwise trip ourselves up in our interpretation of things, Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow is a good resource.

 

Communicating playing time prospects to non-starters

A question recently came up on the subject of talking with non-starters.

So many times when the discussion of playing time comes up, either the player or parent is asking what they need to improve on, or the coach uses improvement in particular skills as a prerequisite for more playing time. Now the paradox: As a coach, don’t you expect improvement from Everyone on your roster? If everyone improves, including the non-starter, is your starting team going to change? (probably not!). So by tying more playing time to improvement, aren’t you setting this player up for more disappointment?

This definitely represents an interesting conundrum for us coaches. In order for a non-starter to become a starter they need to get better. Either that or a starter needs to have a dip in form. You certainly hope and expect that the starters will continue to improve, though. If that’s the case, then the non-starter should never get into the starting lineup. So how do we handle this?

Control what we can control

First and foremost, it is important to get the non-starter focused on what they can control. They cannot control what others do. They can only control their own effort and attitude. It’s about putting in the work with intention. A potentially big part of this is making sure you give them at least as much attention as you give your starters. That way they don’t feel left behind or left out.

Different rates of improvement

A major consideration in this whole scenario is a kind of assumption that players improve at the same rate. This really isn’t the case, though. Player’s progress at different rates. That means non-starters can definitely overtake starters over time. This is especially true when you’ve got players at different points in their development. Younger players tend to make gains more quickly than older ones.

Don’t tie playing time to improvement

Here’s the mistake coaches can make. We obviously want to see our non-starters improve. Even if they never make the starting team, their better play in practice will at least create a higher level of play in that context (see A-team vs. B-team), challenging the other players more. We cannot, though, tie playing time to improvement – at least not in a nominal sense.

By that I mean we can’t tell players they just need to get better because the reality is that they need to be better than the starter(s) ahead of them. Thus, it’s a relative thing, not an absolute. You thus have to frame it more along the lines of, “You need to be better than (or at least as good as) Jane in …” That gives you room to base things on the relative levels of the player rather than absolute changes by the non-starter.

Note that all of this can tie in with your decisions on substitutions as well.

Game: 2-player, 2-ball Volley Tennis

Synopsis: This is a great warm-up type game that gets players moving and competing while also working on communication and strategy.

Age/Skill Level: This is a game for all levels

Requirements: 4+ players, full court

Execution: Split the group in half and put the teams on opposite sides of the court. Two players from each team will be involved in each rally, so the rest will be off behind the end line waiting to rotate in (if you have more than the minimum).

A rally starts with one player from each team on the court, and one off the court beyond the end line as “server”. The servers count to 3 together, then underhand throw the ball over the net to the other side. From here the teams play volley tennis with one contact per ball per side. Play continues until both balls are dead. If one team wins both balls they get a point. Otherwise, it’s a wash (no point). Game is to 10, or whatever you choose.

Variations:

  • You can play on a reduced sized court for younger players.
  • You could play with teams of 3, but probably wouldn’t want to go with more than that.
  • Illegal “serves” (toss too flat) can either be a replay or you could count them as if they were a missed serve. The latter counts as a ball won by the receiving team.
  • You can split the group out any number of ways – by age, by height, by shirt color, etc.

Additional Comments:

  • This game was first introduced to me, I think, by the Swedish players when I coached at Svedala. They referred to it as Brazilian 2-ball tennis (or something like that). To this day I refer to it that way with my teams.
  • Every team I’ve ever seen play this game – my own and others’ – has enjoyed it a great deal. Even up to national team level professionals.

Staff conversations before the season

Someone on Facebook asked the following two questions in a volleyball coaching group.

Head coaches: things you wish you discussed with your assistants prior to the season starting?

Assistant coaches: things you wish your head coach talked about prior to the season starting?

Obviously, these are after-season questions. They introduce, though, the subject of staff conversations before the season starts. What should we talk about in our coaching meetings?

Yes, you should have at least one meeting before you get started!

I think broadly speaking there are a few key conversation topics. How far do you think the team can reasonably go this season? Given that, what are our initial priorities to get us there? What is the staff’s division of responsibilities?

The main focus here is to get everyone on the same page. For sure as things develop through the season priorities will shift. At least at the initial stage everyone, though, the staff will all know the plan. After that, you can turn to details.

And these kinds of discussions should not just happen between the coaches. At a minimum, the head coach needs to also talk to their boss – athletic director, club president, etc. You probably also want to bring team leaders in on the conversations as well. Perhaps the whole team.

Improving team communication through acknowledgement

One of my early influences when I became serious about coaching volleyball was Mike Hebert. I read his books, The Fire Still Burns and Insights when I was coaching for Dean College. I coached against him once when I was at Brown and he was at Minnesota. His most recent book, Thinking Volleyball, is one I strongly recommend.

Mike authored a post for the Art of Coaching Blog. It’s focus is on the subject of acknowledgement. Basically, the rule was an individual must always indicate they heard something said to them. That applied to both something said by a coach and things said by other players. Mike developed a rule about this for his teams based on an experience with a player who didn’t show she’d heard what he was saying to her.

I think we’ve all been there. It’s really frustrating, isn’t it?

Of course, it’s not just a question of showing you heard something said to you. There’s more nuance. Mike had a set of acknowledgement rules to encourage constructive communication. Here they are in an edited fashion.

  1. When spoken to by a coach or teammate, acknowledge to the speaker that you heard and understood them – without emotion.
  2. You can make your acknowledgement verbally or by gesture, but it must convey that you heard.
  3. Keep in mind, acknowledgement does not necessarily mean agreement.
  4. Develop an acknowledgement style that invites further communication.
  5. Respond every time a coach gives you feedback or instruction.
  6. When a teammate communicates something in the heat of battle that offends you momentarily, acknowledge in a non-inflammatory manner.

As you can see, Mike went beyond simply showing that you heard. He also addressed how you indicate. You do not get emotional, and possibly inflame a situation. You try to demonstrate a willingness to communicate.

Importantly, as Mike says, acknowledgement does not have to mean agreement. You can acknowledge and still disagree. In doing so, you demonstrate respect for the other person and do not appear to be dismissive. This can foster more positive communication and lead to better team cohesion.

Addressing player effort and quality differences

An email came in from a coach working with a group of players. It deals with the question of how to handle a situation where effort and playing caliber don’t match.

I have two young and two older experienced hitters. The older players don’t give their all. They do what they must, but without the involvement. When we have a match, they play very well, with very good effect, and they can win a point under pressure.

The young players don’t understand why they are a reserve players if they play the as well as the older ones in training (a lot of times better). Unfortunately, in matches the young players make more mistakes and don’t have stable form (sometimes they can play amazing volleyball, but sometimes they can do simple mistakes). They were the most important players in the youth club and they don’t understand that in the senior league it is different.

Have you ever had similar problem in your career? What would you do, if you were me?

I’ll summarize the situation this way. We have two experienced players who go through the motions in practice, but are clearly the best come match time. We then have two young players who work very hard in practice, but are not yet consistent performers in matches.

To my mind there is a question of priorities here. The reference at the end about “senior league” makes me think competition is the priority for this particular team. That means putting the best team on the court for each match is what it’s about.

To my mind there are two ways to try to handle this sort of situation.

The younger players

The first thing we have to do is to make sure the younger players who aren’t playing understand the team’s priority – winning. They further need to understand why the more experienced players are the starters – fewer errors, more consistent performance, etc. The younger players may not like the situation, but at least they will understand the logic.

Explaining things is not enough, though. You also need to provide those players with a path toward increased playing time. Where do they need to improve to push the experienced players? What do they need to do to make those improvements? Give them hope and steps they can take to move toward their goal.

The experienced players

It obviously isn’t any fun when some of those best players realize they will start no matter what and don’t bother to give full effort in training. The challenge is to find ways to motivate them to change that behavior. What is it they can target as a reason to push themselves in training?

Ideally, their motivation is simply to make the team the best it possibly can be. If the players are motivated by the collective good, then the coach’s job is to show them how better training by those players will help achieve that goal.

Unfortunately, some players have more selfish motivates. Maybe they want to earn some honors or recognition. Maybe they want a better contract or to move to a bigger club. You have to find out where their motivation is and try to appeal to that.

Short-term/long-term

Linked in with all of this is the time frame you are working in. Are you just concerned with this season? If so, then you are probably going to have keep picking the more experienced players for the starting lineup. If, however, you have the ability to think longer term, maybe you can find some opportunities to bench the experienced players from time to time. That would give the younger players valuable experience and show the experienced ones there are others looking to take their positions.

Those are some thoughts I had on the situation. I’d love to hear what others have done in a similar circumstance, or would do. Leave comment below and share your thoughts and/or experience.

Wait. I don’t remember it like that

One of the disadvantages of having a former player in the broadcast business is that sometimes you get thrown under the bus – intentionally or otherwise. The American setter I had at Svedala, Camryn Irwin, is in that arena now. She also sometimes featured as a guest on The Net Live. She did the intro and outro audio for the Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast as a favor to me back when we started it.

A player’s recollection

One such episode was December 12, 2016. About an hour in, a discussion of block vs. game-like training developed. There were interesting perspectives shared by a combination of men’s and women’s players and coaches. Along the way, Cam cast me in a negative light.

She didn’t actually say, “John Forman … “. Instead, it was more “my coach in Sweden …”. I doubt most people who listen to the show have any idea that’s me. They would have to find out where Cam played in Sweden and then probably dig around to learn that I was the coach for that team. I’m guessing most American volleyball people won’t do that work.

But back to what she said. The conversation got into the subject of playing a lot in practice. I’m not going discuss the skill acquisition value of block vs. random and all that here, because that wasn’t Cam’s focus. If you want to get into it, you can start with this post. Cam talked instead about practice intensity and the potential impact on player fatigue.

Basically, what she said was at Svedala I just wanted to play all the time in training and the players felt like they needed more “drill” time to bring down the physical demands. She talked about meeting with the coach (me) to discuss it. The way she talked about it on the show was to say “We can’t just play for an hour and a half.” The implication was that they would physically break down.

Let’s put the question of whether 90 minutes of game play in practice is too high an intensity to the side for now. Maybe that’s a question for another article.

Instead I want to look at Cam’s recollection of things and compare it to my own.

A coach’s recollection

First, I remember the “We want more drills” request mainly from a skill acquisition perspective (in part a motivation for this post). It was less about training intensity.

Second, we never just played. Well, maybe the very first session. Check out my log entries for that season to see. Yes, we played a lot – especially small-sided games. I almost never had the bodies for 6 v 6. Those rare days we could play 6 v 6 (guest players) we did use the bulk of the session to do so because it would have been foolish not to. And the players were always very excited to do so. Every practice, though, included non-game activities. There was target serving, passing, various peppers, and defense drills mixed in at different points.

Third, even when we did do game play I tried to move players around to keep their workload balanced. For example, I wanted the six-rotation players getting equal back row and front row work.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I was generous with time off. We started with 10 players, and quickly dropped to 9. That means only two back-ups to the first team – a setter and an OH. Knowing the starters would have a heavy load, I always looked for opportunities to give the team breaks. We didn’t usually train on Thursday, so if we didn’t play on the weekend I sometimes (maybe always in-season) gave them Friday off for an extra long weekend. I know I also gave them off at least one Monday after we played on Saturday. Plus, they got 10 days completely off over the holidays. This is all on top of going lighter the days after matches and cutting things off if they looked tired.

So from my perspective I tried to not physically overwork them.

Reconciling the two perspectives

It is worth sharing something Cam related to the team at one point during the season. She often talked with players from other teams after matches as there were several Americans in the league. One of them was apparently in awe of the types of plays our team made during games – plays no one else made. Cam attributed that, at the time, to us playing a lot in training. So clearly there was a recognition on her end of the value of making practice game-like.

So why the difference in recollection?

Maybe in the moment during the TNL discussion Cam didn’t have a chance to really think back on the season. Or maybe the time off didn’t really register as you might expect.This sort of thing can happen to players. For example, a player can complete a practice and think they should have passed more balls, forgetting that they passed a bunch of them in the games or in drills that were not “passing” drills. It’s a question of the perspective on the activity (or lack thereof). We coaches are subject to this as well.

Maybe because of other stuff going on for her (like coaching the club’s youth players) Cam had a different perspective on time off than mine. She also had to deal with a back injury, which forced some additional work on her part. Perhaps that factors in to her recollections as well.

For what it’s worth, my player-coach relationship with Camryn was a positive one. I don’t think she holds any ill will toward me. She was just a player with a player’s perspective and I was a coach with a coach’s perspective. I don’t take her comments from TNL personally, even if at the time there was a bit of an “Ouch!” response. 🙂

Were the players overworked?

The team definitely struggled at times during the first weeks of the second half of the season. By that point we only had 8 players, the only back-up being a setter. I was already paring back training time. I can remember talking with the team about how we’d look to do that, but how we’d still need to keep the intensity up as much as possible in that shorter time. They needed to keep challenging each other to continue progressing.

At the same time their weight training regime had recycled. Might the combination of the two been too much? Conversely, did I give them too much time off over the holidays? These are among the things I’ve thought about as potentially contributing to a couple of poor January performances. Unfortunately, I was let go at the start of February (season runs through April), so I have no way to know how the physical side of things might played out long-term.

The lesson

Players are individuals with their own inherent biases and perspectives. It’s inevitable that they see and remember things differently than you do as a coach. Many a coach has been surprised/embarrassed/mortified at the things players remember. It comes with the territory. We want to do our best to not teach what we don’t want learned, but we have a very different view point from our players. Accept it. Try to understand their perspective. Do your best to learn when you come across an example of divergent recollection.

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.

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