Tag Archive for communication

Coaching leadership differences between the genders

During my Volleyball Coaching Wizards conversations I’ve spoken with coaches who have worked with both male and female players. I always make a point of asking each of them how they approach the two genders. Is there any difference in their coaching? What’s been interesting is that many have responded that they don’t really change anything.

One of the early influences on my own coaching was Anson Dorrance. He’s the long-time women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. He started off on the men’s side and for a while coached both men and women. As a result, he’s got some very interesting observations on the differences in leading the two groups. They tend to disagree with the “I treat everyone the same” idea. Check out this discussion of his on the subject (hat tip to volleyballcoaching101)

One of the things I can’t help but wonder about coaches who claim they are the same coaching male athletes and female ones is if there really are differences they just don’t recognize. I know that I am different coaching men than coaching women. It’s not an intentional thing for the most part. I don’t consciously say I’m going to have this demeanor on the court with the men and this other demeanor with the women. It just sort of happens.

Listening to Anson, the other thing I got to wondering was if coaches tend to niche themselves based on whether their personality better suits working with one gender or the other.

Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive?

What is the point of yelling at a team?

My guess is you’re probably thinking of something along the lines of communicating to them your displeasure. In response to that I ask two questions.

First, does your displeasure actually need to be communicated?

When does most coach yelling and screaming happen? Generally when a team is losing and playing badly (or has just done), right? Do you think the players aren’t already well aware of that? Seems to me Coach isn’t providing them with any extra information or feedback by hollering in a situation like that.

In fact, most of the time yelling at a team in that scenario is really just piling on and making them feel even worse. Is that really something that needs to be done? Doubtful. In which case you must evaluate the real motivation for the yelling.

I contend – and I know others agree – yelling in a situation like that is very often more about the coach venting than any kind of actual useful communication between coach and team. I have seen situations where coaches ripped into teams. They even brought up the recent death of family members in post-match talks. No good comes of something like that. There are much less destructive ways for a coach to blow off steam than taking it out on their players. This is especially when we’re talking about youth players and young adults.

The second question is in situations when your displeasure does need to be communicated, is yelling really the best choice?

Personally, I hate yelling. I have something of an aversion to drawing attention to myself. Being loud like that is very attention-drawing! As I told a player once, if I get angry enough about something to feel the need to yell, then I become doubly angry because I hate being put in that sort of situation. I don’t turn into a raving lunatic or anything. I’m definitely not a happy camper in those situations, though.

As you can probably imagine, based on that and what I wrote about yelling as player feedback, I am not one who thinks yelling is the best choice in most cases. I can express my disappointment or displeasure perfectly fine without raising my voice or using abrasive language. I seem to be able to get things across with a combination of facial expressions, body language, and saying things like “I’m not happy” in a fairly normal tone of voice. That said, though, clear expectations is key. It goes a long way toward making it easier to express one’s self without having to resort to histrionics.

Some yelling may be required, though.

Having said that, I will admit there are times when I think yelling is justified. Mainly this has to do with getting attention and focus. If players are goofing around or chatting amongst themselves or otherwise not engaged as they should be – especially if it means they are not performing a job like ball circulation or keeping their teammates safe from balls rolling under their feet – I will have a few sharp words with them. That’s it, though. I don’t go off on a rant. I get their attention and make my point, then get back to business.

On occasion I have yelled and/or used colorful language (with an age appropriate group) for a kind of shock effect. Since I don’t often yell or swear – especially with my women’s teams (young men with their lack of focus seem to need it a bit more) – when I do it tends to get them to take notice. Obviously, this is something we need use very selectively, though. The examples that stand out to me have been times when a team simply did not play up to its standard (winning or losing) in a particular match.

The point of all of this is to have you think about the motivation and reasons for yelling and what you want to accomplish when you do so. If you yell, make sure it’s to positive effect. That sounds perhaps a bit paradoxical, but it’s the idea of being constructive rather than just making players feel even worse or keeping the focus on the past rather than the future.

Go ahead and yell at me coach

Spend time talking to athletes about what they want from their interactions with their coach an you’ll inevitably hear something to the effect of “I want you to yell at me.” I once had a player say, “I don’t care if you scream at me…”

You’ve heard that sort of thing, right? Maybe you thought it yourself in your days as a player.

To use some British phraseology, it’s rubbish!

Don’t believe a word of it. I’m not saying the players aren’t sincere when they say that. The issue is they’re not really being honest with themselves or with you about the yelling. They are, instead, telling you something about what the yelling represents to them.

No player wants you to yell at them. It may be effective at times. Some may have a thick enough skin that they can take it. They don’t actually want their coach yelling at them, though, and they do care if you do it. At its perhaps least upsetting level, it means in the coach’s eyes they’ve messed up. Obviously, no player is looking to do that. Above and beyond that, I’m sure any number of progressively more negative emotional responses come to mind. Think humiliation, anger, depression, etc.

Dig a little deeper with the players and you’ll find that what they are actually saying when they give you permission to yell at them. They really want ongoing feedback. Yelling – as much as it’s uncomfortable being on the receiving end – is at least a form of much desired information about their development and performance.

I have separate comments on the general idea of yelling in the Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive? post. For this discussion, though, I hope you realize as a coach that even if you feel as though yelling at a player can be useful at times, it is only one potential form of feedback – and generally one with a strong negative focus. As coaches we need to be able to use the broad spectrum of feedback mechanisms and operate in both the positive and negative realms in reasonable measure.

So the next time you have a player tell you it’s OK to yell at them, make a little mental note that you need to be more conscious of providing that player with a lot of feedback, and probably in a variety of ways.

Managing team cultural and language diversity

The topic of managing diversity came up in some of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. There are really two types of situation where this situation arises. One is the case where the coach is of a different nationality or cultural background from the players. An example of this is a national team where the head coach is not from that country. The other case is a team made up of players from multiple cultures. You see this a lot at the professional level where teams and staffs comprise players from potentially many  countries.

Both Paulo Cunha (Portugal) and Vital Heynen (Belgium/Germany) talked on this subject in their interviews. In particular, Vital shared one way he seeks to avoid cliques developing, which this clip speaks to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

At Exeter I didn’t have to deal with the language thing all that much. The players I coached generally spoke pretty good English. No surprise given we were in an English-speaking country. Also, the players were from so many different countries (like 25) that there wasn’t a lot of overlap. Often, developing their language skills was part of the motivation for the foreign players being in England. In my last season, though, there was a Spanish speaking group who tended to use that for conversations between themselves (in general terms, the Spanish players I coached were the ones who most struggled with English). Sometimes the Chinese players also used that language speaking together.

Also, when I was with German professional team SC Potsdam last year there were clear German and Italian language cliques (the coaching staff was Italian and spoke that between themselves). At TV Bühl, the other German team I visited with last year, the coaching staff spoke Spanish among themselves, but English was the clear team language.

Mental connection through physical contact and gesture

Former NBA star Steve Nash got some attention a while back for a blog post (unfortunately, the blog has since been closed down). It was on the subject of high-5s, and physical contact between players in general. In it he made the point that such contact helps to connect the players. It indicates approval and congratulations for something well-done. It also provides support after a miscue. Steve makes some excellent points on the impact of this sort of behavior on team chemistry and cohesion. It’s something which we can definitely see evidence for, and should be encouraged in volleyball.


I want to shift the focus, though, to coach-player contact as I think there are some related ideas. Obviously, there are a number of potential pitfalls in the area of coach-on-player physical contact. This is especially true when crossing gender lines and in adult-child relationships. I’m not going to get into a discussion here on where lines should be drawn and what should be considered appropriate or inappropriate. That’s an involved conversation with considerable cultural considerations. Let’s just stick to clearly non-controversial elements.

A very basic example of this is something I saw a lot coaching outside the US. At the start of a men’s team’s training you almost always see players shaking hands with the coach(es) – as well as each other. I even received handshakes myself as a visiting coach during my times with the professional teams at BR Volleys and TV Bühl in Germany. This wasn’t common practice when I came up, but may be something that’s developed in the men’s game in the US as well in recent years. It’s been a while since I coached guys in the States.

In my experience working with both genders, these handshakes serve a similar purpose for men as the conversational exchanges you see with women’s teams before training. It’s a simple person-to-person and group connection. It’s an indication of respect which helps reinforce the full team dynamic.

High 5s

Returning to the high 5s, as a coach I personally use them and their like to communicate three main things:

Good job

Let’s go

You’ll get ’em next time

One quick bit of physical contact with more than one use! And sometimes one high 5 actually serves multiple purposes. For example, “Good job” and “Let’s go” often get combined in one hand slap.

And you don’t even need actual contact to transmit something to a player through physical means.

Body language is a whole subject in itself. What I’m thinking of here are specific gestures with meaning to given individuals, though. Sally Kus talks about this a bit in her book Coaching Volleyball Successfully. She used a specific 2-part gesture to express the idea of “key dig” to one of her players on the court. Giving a player a clap after a good play, or giving them a “chin up” signal, or any of a number of similar types of things are all non-verbal ways we coaches can get things across to our players and express a connection with them – just as players do between and among themselves.

Ice-breaking and bonding games

The most interactive session at the HP Coaches Clinic I attended in 2015 was run by Steve Shenbaum. You may recognize him from his days as an actor. He focused on ways to get players to know each other in a safe, fun, and often funny way through a series of games. He had all of us play a couple of them.


This is a very simple game but can get quite funny. Two people stand in front of each other and alternate counting 1-2-3. As in Person A says 1, Person B says 2, Person A says 3, Person B says 1, and so on. Easy enough. There three variations that make things a bit more interesting. The first one is to replace saying 1 with a clap (clap-2-3). The second is to replace 2 with a snap of the fingers (1-snap-3). The third is to replace 3 with a foot stomp (1-2-stomp). Replacing a number with an action forces more concentration and creates a pattern change. It also allows for the introduction of some personality as how people clap, snap, or stomp is completely up to them.

Red Light/Green Light

This was the other game Steve has us actually play with a partner. Basically, it’s an improvisational story-telling type of conversation. One person is the talker while the other is the listener. The teller says a sentence like “I had cheese on my eggs this morning.” The listener then says Yes or No. If the listener says Yes, then the talker continues along the same line. For example, “I had a bagel and some orange juice as well.” If the listener says No, then the talker has to change things up. For example, they might say “Actually, I had a bowl of cereal.” After each new sentence the listener says Yes or No and the talker reacts accordingly. You can imagine all the random directions this can go. Each person spends a predetermined amount of time as talker (say 2 minutes).

There were three other games Steve showed us. They were Coins, Dimmer Switch, and Hitchhiker. Honestly, I can’t remember what Coins was about. The other two were very improvisational as well, but a bit too complex to really describe here. I brought up the Dimmer Switch concept in the Ideas for new team integration post. Basically it has to do with raising or lower an individual’s personal level of energy and enthusiasm.

Having done both the 1-2-3 and Red Light/Green Light games I can very easily see how they could be useful in helping players start connecting with each other on a personal level. Definitely more fun and better for breaking down inter-personal barriers than being forced to tell each other three things about ourselves and some of the other stuff that gets used in team building exercises.

Ideas for new team integration

Most of us volleyball coaches at some point along the way have had to deal with a situation of having a bunch of players on the court who don’t know each other and have never played together before. I certainly dealt with that in my three seasons coaching at the University of Exeter. Annual turnover was better than 50% each year. I also definitely dealt with it back in my days of coaching Juniors volleyball. You get done with try-outs. Now you have a group of players that need to be integrated, sometimes very quickly. How do you do that?

One of the sessions at the 2015 HP Coaches Clinic was on this subject. Shelton Collier is the head coach at Wingate University. He also coaches at the USA junior national team level, and he shared some thoughts on how to accelerate the integration process. This is something they deal with frequently because they often have very little time between team selection and their first match. It might only have a handful of training sessions.

One of the ideas Shelton offered as a way to quickly get players working together and communicating on the court is to put them in scramble mode. Basically, that means stressing them in a game-play environment with unpredictable situations and a high tempo. The Scramble Game is an example of this. Think of it as the volleyball equivalent of throwing someone in to the deep end of the swimming pool. The rapid pace leaves no time for thinking, which tends to break down barriers. Will there be mistakes? Of course. But as the action goes on the players will start to sort things out with each other through communication and understanding.

The other thing Shelton brought up was the use of the “dimmer switch” idea with respect to intensity. This is something from Steve Shenbaum’s presentation at the clinic. It goes something like this.

Usually, with a new group of players together on the court, the intensity level and communication are pretty low. On a 0-10 scale it might be something like a 2-3. The players are quiet and look at each other to figure out who’s going to play the ball.

Shelton ran a mixed group of collegiate players through a drill in his session.That’s about where they were at. After a bit he stopped them. He talked about them being at that 2-3 level, getting them to buy into the idea. He then asked them to try to move that up to a 6. The players immediately increased their intensity and communication. After a bit longer Shelton then asked them to jack it up to a 9. That’s higher than you’d expect to see during training (at least for any sustained period), but it served to show them where they could really take things.

The important aspect to this dimmer switch or intensity scale idea is that Shelton didn’t actually tell the players what to do. He didn’t say “Talk” or “Call the ball” or anything like that. He simply identified the current level and indicated where he wanted it to be. That allowed each player individually to figure out what they needed to do to get their own intensity level to the proper point. This is key because players vary considerably. The dimmer idea allows them to get the the right intensity level in a way that is comfortable for them.

So next time you find yourself with a new bunch of players to start to integrate into a team, think scramble and dimmer switch. You might find both ideas quite useful.

Got any favorite team integration ideas of your own? Leave a comment below to share them.

Recognizing players for good training

Player recognition for their performance in matches tends not to be something which needs all that much coaching focus. Those who do well in competition tend to get plenty of praise for it from all different corners. Though sometimes we do need to point out good play which is not so obvious to those outside the team.

Training is a different story. Some rare circumstances aside, practice is only attended by the team, so there is no external source of recognition. That means it has to come from within the group. If there’s a good team dynamic, players will tend to provide on-the-spot recognition for each other during the session. That covers one aspect of it. You, as coach, are responsible for the rest.

Importantly, a big part of “the rest” is setting and maintaining expectations. You want praise and recognition parceled out when it’s deserved and it’s the result of doing things the right way. Training is when that right way is being established and developed. That makes it a key time for recognition, and for warranted constructive criticism (handled in the right way, of course).

The question is how to dole out that recognition.

The Exeter women’s team I coached had I think a quite good way to recognize players for a good practice. At the end of each session I brought them together to talk about how things went. That’s when I reinforced what we were working on, go over any administrative details, etc. We would then do the team cheer to conclude. Then I selected a player who stood out in my mind as doing well that training to lead the cheer.

I did not initiate the procedure myself, as it was basically already in place when I started working with the team. I definitely found it worthwhile, though. Not only did it allow me to recognize someone for having a good session – by their own standards – at times I could also use it to recognize a player who perhaps hadn’t received much in the way of specific notice or otherwise I thought could benefit from being at the center of attention for a moment.

A side effect of using this team cheer leading is that it sometimes led to moments of levity. I surprised a lot of players by picking them, which led to some funny responses like monetarily forgetting how to start the cheer. One season I had two players whose names I always flipped for some reason. I would look at one of them in the cheer huddle, meaning for her to take the lead, but say the other one’s name.

Funny moments aside, one of the things I like about this particular recognition procedure is that it serves the desired purpose of giving a deserved pat on the back. It does so in a low key fashion, though. You want to avoid making a player uncomfortable by singling them out for praise. Also, you don’t want the team resentful of someone who gets individual praise. Those sorts of things can have severe effects on team chemistry.

The cheer approach represents one sort of recognition – that is for doing well over a period of time, in this case a practice. There should also be recognition of a more immediate nature when a player (or group) does something deserving of it. We call this positive feedback. 🙂

Players today!

“I really would not recommend the profession to anyone right now. Kids are different, kids, parents, administrators have way to much influence! Coaches hands are tied…..can’t push, can’t discipline…..parents and administration are one! YUK!”

Those comments are from a coach who was in the game at the NCAA Division I level for many years. They aren’t the only one I’ve heard these sorts of things from either. It even goes beyond volleyball – and beyond sports in general. I’ve heard similar sorts of views expressed by professors I know as well. They make me kind of chuckle in a way. After all, we always see the older generation complain about the younger one in some way, shape, or form.

Actually, from a coaching perspective the competitive part of me loves to hear that kind of stuff. There’s two reasons for that which might give me an advantage in either the coaching or recruiting arenas (or both). 🙂

The first reason is that I worked in a very player-centric environment while coaching in England. I didn’t have an administration to please (at least not directly), but rather a collection of student-athletes and their elected leaders. I essentially coached at their pleasure. That meant I had to earn and retain their respect. I had to both coach them on-court and guide them in the off-court club management. I must have done at least something right as they presented me with a signed ball (a legit one too!) at my final Christmas Party to thank me for my time with them.

The second reason is that I deal with my players as they are and am constantly asking the question of how to better communicate with, motivate, and educate this team or this particular individual. It could be viewed as having a growth rather than fixed mindset as I discussed in How do you view your coaching exams? I just think of it in terms of looking at the situation I’m currently in, getting the most out of things, and trying to find ways to improve it.

So to all those coaches out there whining about players today … hope you don’t have to go up against me because I’m going to eat your lunch! 😉

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