Tag Archive for communication

Getting young players to communicate and move

A reader asked the following very common question:

I am assistant coach of Grade 8 girls and they need to come out of their shells. What drills do you suggest to help with their first pass?

Basically, this coach is after ways to get them to call the ball and move more aggressively to play it. I can tell you that this isn’t something confined to just to girls or just younger players. I’ve had to address it with older players and with members of both genders.

Calling the ball

Communication is all about habit. You need to develop in your players the habit of calling the ball before they play it. Really, the only way to do that is to have them do it repeatedly. Unfortunately, there’s no magic drill to make them suddenly start talking. As a coach you simply have to prioritize that focus. Then you need to continuously reinforce it in different ways throughout your trainings. Put them in situations where they have to cooperate. Have consequences for failure to call the ball, like not counting repetitions in passing drills, or even making it a minus. Maybe add a bonus point in a game for any time all three contacts for a team have someone calling the ball. Be creative, but most importantly make sure to consistently focus on it. If you only intermittently encourage them to talk, they will probably only communicate intermittently.

Moving to the ball

Standing around waiting for the ball to come to them is the hallmark of new players. This is something that needs to be very quickly addressed. Regular work on court footwork (shuffles, cross-overs, etc.) is a starting point. That gets players used to the idea of moving and how to do it properly. That’s just the starting point, though. The second step is to incorporate movement before playing the ball into your drills. Even if you work on the very basic stuff, you can still have them shuffle a step or two before they pass. The more they become used to the idea of moving prior to playing the ball, the more it will start to come naturally.

Confidence and connection

Let’s face it. A lot of what makes players quiet and tentative is a lack of confidence and not feeling connected with their teammates. To the extent we as coaches can help overcome that we speed up the process of getting them to talk to each other and come together as a team. Something I’ve found useful in that regard is the Amoeba serving game. I’ve seen quiet groups turn into a yelling, screaming bunch of players as they encourage each other in trying to beat the other team. Lots of exactly the sort of things we want to develop in our players. And I’m not just talking about youngsters here. I saw the same sort of thing with my university players in England, where I used the game to help integrate players from all different nationalities and backgrounds.

Coaching Log – Oct 16 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

Wednesday was our first BUCS match of the year. To say things didn’t go optimally would be an understatement. We had to drive over 4 hours (players driving) leaving before 7am to get to the match, closer to 5 hours by the time we got parked and across campus, changed and into the gym. Then we found out we had basically zero time to warm up before the official pre-match routine started because our Athletic Union failed to inform us that said warm-up was set to begin about 25 minutes before the team was changed. Needless to say, we weren’t anywhere close to mentally or physically prepared to play the match.

The opposition was solid, but by no means overpowering. They reminded us a lot of the third place teams from our league last year in terms of style of play. I have no doubt we have the players capable of beating them. Not, however, if we play the way we did on Wednesday. Way too many mistakes driven by tentative, fearful play. And our blocking and defense weren’t nearly good enough (the latter definitely a function of the former). Lots of work needs doing – technically, tactically, and mentally.

It was an early training session on Thursday as we swapped spots with the men’s team since they played a late-day match Wednesday. Not surprisingly, there were some sluggish minds and bodies. We only had six balls, which put some serious limits on what I could do with them. It ended up being a session developed dynamically.

I had them start with rotating pepper after the dynamic warm-up, then moved to a variation of the hard drill. My decision to do that latter was to get the players doing more thinking on the court. After that, I did half court (narrow) winners 4s with fixed setters.

It was not a great session. Too little focus. Too little commitment. Balls dropped. Players made numerous bad decisions. I was sharper with them because of it than I’ve been so far this season. I actually ended training early after yet another ball hit the floor with two players standing there looking at each other (which got the team captain shouting at them).

I told them at the end of training that certain players need to get more focused (no names) and were at risk of being excluded from training because they were negatively influencing the ability of other players to practice at the necessary intensity. They were warned that Monday’s session had better be MUCH better in terms of intensity and focus.

On the plus side, after telling the two setters I would make them do a push-up (just 1) if I caught them leaving target early (which they both had been horribly guilty of up to that point in the session) they were much more disciplined about that.

Coaching Log – Oct 9 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

Back to the big gym. This being the 2 week mark from the time a player told us she’d come out for the team in two weeks, there was the possibility of having a 16th in the mix. With no contact since, however, I wasn’t betting on it. As it turns out, she did show up, though I also had one player out sick.

Of more immediate concern was the upcoming matches. All indications point to us playing our first BUCS match on Wednesday, with a tune-up South West league match before that on Sunday. Unfortunately, a couple of the probable starters for Wednesday (M2 and L/O2) can’t make Sunday’s match. Also, one of my three starting setter candidates is unavailable for Wednesday for academic reasons. That means I need to focus on the other two setters in the short term, leaving me to use the to-be-missing one as a libero for Sunday’s match.

Topping my training to-do list was Run & Serve, which I wanted to do last week – just good serves, nothing more at this stage. As per usual, serve and serve receive to take advantage of the larger space were to be main features. I made this the first drill after warming-up. It took maybe 10 times through for everyone to get their serves in. Not horrible, but could have been better.

From there I moved them to player winners and eventually to winner’s 4s with fixed setters (setter for the winning team goes to/stays on the winner’s side) in the form of my two prospective starters for next week. That then progressed to 6 v 6 in the form of the 2-in-2 game to work on serve receive offense, with regular play for the last 10 minutes (after I did a quick serve receive rotation walk-through to show them the different options for mixing things up).

Observations: A) should have done the serve receive walk-through at the outset. B) I hope low intensity isn’t going to be the Thursday training pattern. C) I need to find some ways to motivate/encourage talking among the B side players as they were virtually silent at times.

Here’s hoping Sunday’s SW match serves to start bringing things together and providing more focus through the lens of external competition.

By the way, the trial player was decent, but not someone likely to challenge the starting group. As a result, I told her we just didn’t have room for another player (15 is already pushing it). She was not well pleased by that.

Coaching Log – Sep 24, 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2014-15.

This was the first official team training of the new season after final cut-down was made on Tuesday. The main idea was to set the overall tone of expectations for training and how I want the team to play.

I actually already started that on Monday and Tuesday in terms of being on time and what happens at the start of the session while the net is being put up. I expect those not involved to ball-handle lightly or do other volleyball-related activities until we’re good to go – not just stand around watching and chatting. They were told about how we had to institute consequences for tardiness last season and how I hoped that would not have to be the case this year.

Additionally, on Tuesday I introduced them to my balls-don’t-drop stance. That was something I wanted to reinforce at the start of training.

The key thing I was looking to start to develop, though, was the “gym as a safe environment” philosophy. By that I mean we are all supportive of each other and we are accepting of making mistakes – both our own and others – as part of the learning and development process. And not only do we support our teammates, but we accept support from them.

In terms of the volleyball, there were a couple of things I wanted to focus on:

1) Serving technique – This is mainly for the B team group where specific training is likely required to get them using consistent mechanics, but even with some of the A team players there may be an issue here or there.

2) Start to identify likely primary passers – This is mainly for the A team group as they will be the first to start competing (first SWVA in 2.5 weeks, then BUCS in 3 weeks). For this I wanted to do some statting of serve reception.

3) Evaluate blocking – I wanted to take a look at footwork and the other mechanical elements to see where work needs to be done.

Here was the plan:

– Blocking footwork patterns along the net as initial warm-up
Passing triplets and quads as a continued warm-up
– Target serving (zones 1, 5, and short)
– Get two serving and passing
– Game play

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending in your perspective), three of the players were not dressed and ready to go on-time, so training started off with consequences. These players were 5 minutes tardy in being ready to go, so we did 5 sets of 4 (4 length of court sprints). Last year we did stuff at the end of training (not sprints, generally), but because this was the first day I wanted to reinforce the “be on time and ready to go” immediately – as well as the fact that it impacted the team, not just the individual.

Following the sprints, to let them catch their breath, I talked with them about the stuff I mentioned above. I told them about the positive gym atmosphere. I talked about how pushing themselves helps push the team forward, and mentioned the way improvements in last year’s team along the way made for increasingly competitive and intense training sessions as the season progressed.

After the talk, I had them do blocking footwork along the net – first single step shuffle, then the step-crossover-hop move. A fair bit of work will need to be done with especially the B-team players to make those patterns automatic. The blocking technique itself wasn’t horrible, though we don’t have any particularly big blockers.

I had them first do the passing triplets/quads. They started with overhand throws to act as an initial shoulder warm-up and to simulate a float serve with more control than we were likely to have if they simply served to start. After I think two rotations through, I did then have them go to short serves (meaning from inside the court, not that they served the ball short). This allowed me to observe common issues to address with the group, and to focus on certain things with individual players.

From there I had them do target serving. They had to put 5 balls in each of deep zones 1 and 5, and if they did that, to serve short. Again, I used the opportunity to do some individual player corrections.

After that it was the team serving and passing. Unfortunately, several balls dropped, so the team had to face the consequences (immediate set of 4). I had the players keep track of their passes so we could mark down each time through how many good out of how many total. In this case, I defined good as middle third of the court in front of the 3m line, so it wasn’t about perfect balls. Predictably, some players struggled. Others did quite well.

I finished up by having them play narrow court (about 2/3 width) Winners 4s. There was some ugly stuff, of course, but the captain told me afterwards she was pretty pleased with how competitive the players were. Along the way I reinforced both the value of taking risks and the need to communicate – particularly hitter availability when out-of-system.

Overall, not a bad session and not a great session. It was probably about what I expected. I’ve decided that at least for a while I want to have the A team players doing serving & passing together because the B team players were clearly struggling with some of the strong serves a couple of A team players have. I want to slow things down a bit for the B team players to let them focus on their technique a bit more and gain some confidence. They will still get to face the tougher serves at times in game-play situations.

We have out next training session tonight – 90 minutes in the big gym.

What do you say to the last kid cut?

Here’s something I thought was worth tossing out to my fellow coaches related to try-out decisions. I want to see what kind of advice they would offer up in this situation. A while back I got the following message from my brother:

So, what do you do when your daughter, who is younger than everyone else at tryouts is the last cut as a freshman? What can she do? Where can she play to get better? She’s upset and feels like its pointless to tryout next year.

So what would you tell the parent of a young player who just missed out on making your school team?

Addendum: John Kessel has a post on this subject on the USA Volleyball website. Think of it as a letter to a cut player. It includes the following:

“The fact is, ending that dream is your choice really, and not in the control of the coach who just cut you. If you like playing, then simply come up with other ways to play until the next round of school or club programming.”

So what do you say to the last player you cut? For that matter, what about the others? Do you have a specific way you handle that situation? When I interviewed Volleyball Coaching Wizard Tom Turco (winner of nearly 20 state high school championships), he said he had conversations with every kid. He felt he owed them all at least that much. Others have said something similar.

What about you?

The right technical feedback

A while back a post went up on the At Home on the Court blog. It talks about the necessity to be narrowly focused when working with players in a technical capacity. Mark’s point is that as much as coaches must have complete knowledge of the technical requirements of a skill, it isn’t enough. In order to be most effective developing those skills they must be able to concentrate on the one aspect of the skill which will have the greatest impact on performance for a given player at a specific point in time. I would take that one step further. I’d say it’s also our job to identify the single best way to communicate what we’re after from that player.

Finding just the right method to communicate our message to the players – either singularly or collectively – is that aspect of coaching which strikes me as being most in line with traditional teaching. A good teacher is able to pick out the right word or phrase or visual or technical demonstration. In doing so they make things click in the mind of their student(s). We coaches have the same challenge.

Personally, I have always found that moment when you see something you’ve been working to explain click in a player’s mind one of the most rewarding in coaching. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding the right word. When I coached at Brown one Spring we did individual work with our starting setter on her defense. Specifically, we were getting her to go to the floor effectively. She struggled to grasp what we wanted until we found the word which made it click in her head. That word may not have mattered to another player. Using it with her, though, made everything come together. She immediately started performing at a higher level.

The point of all this is that technical knowledge is useless without the ability to communicate it effectively. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we’ve certainly all at least heard of university professors who are absolutely brilliant in their field, but can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. We coaches cannot afford to be like that.

The challenges of communicating effectively were at the forefront of my coaching experience in England. I coached players from something like 25 different nationalities. The vast majority did not speak English as a first language. They also came from a wide variety of volleyball cultures and systems. As a result, I had to do a lot of work getting everyone on the same page in terms of having a common volleyball language. It forced me to constantly work to make sure I was understood and that the message is getting across the right way. And I’m not just talking about avoiding the use of “shag” when I wanted them to collect the balls! 😉 I can’t help feel like I’m a better coach for it. I suspect Mark would say the same thing for his own part. He has, after all, worked with players from many different nationalities.

So I guess the lesson is that you should constantly be working to make sure you’re technical feedback communication strategy is right for each situation and player.

Providing meaningful feedback

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

On the positive side

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

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

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

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

Criticism without correction

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

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

How loud is it in your volleyball gym?

Previously I commented in my coaching log entry about the volume of communication that took place during training. The university women I coached at the time had finally reached the level of understanding and intensity where they talked nearly constantly during game play. It wasn’t all of them all the time, of course. It was a massive change, however, from when I first got over there.

I joked with the team after training that people must have heard them throughout the sports center we trained in. From my perspective, that was awesome!

Volume = focus and intensity

You see, for me a loud team in training is a focused team playing at a high level of intensity. It’s what I was used to when I was coaching collegiately in the States. One of the things I immediately picked up on when I got involved with volleyball in England was how quiet it was on the court much of the time. I remember watching a men’s match my first season and hearing nothing but the sound of the ball on either side of the net. It blew my mind!

When I refer to a team being loud, there are a couple of elements to it. First is the simple part. Players communicate with each other during play. That’s calling the ball, hitters calling for sets, liberos making defensive calls, etc. There’s also the between play type of talking mentioned by Matt here. That’s being supportive of each other, keeping each other focused and motivated, and all that.

As Matt posted, though, communication needs to be focused and positive. It’s no good if it doesn’t actually serve a purpose or if it’s negative. It should be about transferring information and encouraging team cohesion.

I had a comment exchange with Coach Rey about the completely opposite idea of a loud gym – namely a silent one. Conceptually, I understand how it would be amazing to have a group of players who know each other and everyone’s responsibilities on the court to the point they could play silently. Alas, there aren’t many teams that reach that point.

So how loud is your gym?

Coaching Log – Feb 19, 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log.

It was a bit of a messy session due to a combination of equipment issues and players late arriving. We also had a new player in training who had been brought in from one of the lower level groups of the club as both a potential fill in for our second team and as a prospect for being in the team fully next season. The net result was that I wasn’t able to get in all the stuff I’d planned, though we did get the key elements done.

After some pepper and dynamic warm-up I had them do the serving warm-up and then targeting of all 6 zones. I transitioned from there into two-sided 3-person serve receive with the coaches serving with a target of 30 and then 3/4 person serve & pass.to get more individual passing reps because the first drill went faster than I’d expected. Because I was focused on serving I don’t know if that was a function of generous targets, easier serves, or what.

I finished up with 22 v 22 to again get serve receive into game play. I had wanted to do either Scramble or Bingo-Bango-Bongo at the end, but we needed to do tardiness punishment at the end, so I couldn’t. I was generally quiet happy with the volume of communication (even with the new player, who was relatively quiet) and the intensity. Still a few mental lapses that need to be erased, and there could have been stronger attacking, but overall I’m pleased with how things are coming along with the group. Given the bye into Final 8s and the amount of time there is until the first team plays it could have been an issue at this point of players not being as seriously motivated.

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