Tag Archive for team building

The source of team culture

One of Luke Thomas’ blog posts got me thinking about the source of team culture. Luke’s perspective is that for his team(s) the culture comes from him. I certainly agree that the coach should reflect the team culture. I’m not sure whether they are necessarily the source of that culture, though.

Recruited team or built program

I think in the case of a recruited team, one can probably say more surely that the coach defines the culture. After all, the coach selects the players. Presumably, those players reflect the type of team that coach wants.

Even there, though, I’m not sure you can say only the coach dictates culture. Certainly the coach can (and probably should) influence it. This is even more strongly the case for something like a high school team where it is a coach working with youth. I think, though, that the collective personality of the team will have some influence. So too may elements of the broader organization or community in which the team operates. It may not be the dominant one, but it at least factors in to the equation.

The now retired John Dunning shared some thoughts on developing and maintaining team culture from this perspective. The clip below is from an interview I did with him.

Unrecruited or built team

The other situation is where you coach a team that you didn’t build yourself. That could be a team already formed when you take over. It could also be a team you selected through a tryout process. Yes, in the latter case you did pick the team. But you only did so from a given pool of players.

In this sort of situation – especially when we’re talking non-youth teams – I feel like a lot of the team culture must come from the players. They need to be part of defining how they train and play and otherwise operate. You may be able to enforce a culture from a top down perspective, but it takes a lot of respect and credibility. You won’t get a cohesive culture if you don’t have player buy-in.

Seen it both ways

I’ve been in both situations. I’ve worked in college programs where we recruited players. There the primary culture is mainly dictated by the coach, especially if they have been there for a while. Returning players help to enforce the existing culture as new players are added each year. Even in this situation, though, you sometime have to adapt. Players change. The local environment can play a big part. Sometimes that’s consistent. Sometimes it changes.

I’ve also been in a situation where I’ve had to adapt myself to a team culture. Yes, I influenced a lot of things on-court. We trained the way I decided we trained and I set the expectations – at least initially. Off the court, though, the players were the bigger determinant of culture. I wouldn’t go along with things that I objected too, but otherwise I adapted myself to the situation.

So what’s your view? Where does/should team culture come from?

See also Creating a Culture of Success.

Giving players more responsibility

Here’s something to think about.

There’s a lot of talk about the level of privilege among modern athletes. Anyone who came up as a player 20 years ago must think current players are seriously spoiled. As one of the Volleyball Coaching Wizards I interviewed said, the older players were happy just to get a new pair of shoes each year.

Obviously, the degree to which players nowadays are spoiled or not, pampered to or not, depends a great deal on the level of play and the resources of the organization for which they compete (or the amount their parents are willing the spend). The team I coached at Svedala, for example, got the basics. The club did not provide the players nearly the gear and support in the form of trainers, etc. as most college players in the US get these days. This is despite being a professional team.

But I’m not here to talk about that stuff. I want to instead discuss the degree to which players are invested in their teams and the programs that surround them.

I recently thought about the structure of university level volleyball in the U.K. That is an entirely club-based system. By that I mean teams are not varsity in the way those of us in the U.S. think about it with the school running this. Instead, they are clubs which are run by the students involved. They are much like club sports at colleges and universities in the States. Yes, there are varying degrees of involvement and oversight from school to school. Overall, though, the club membership is responsible for the direction the program takes and much of the day-to-day administration.

The result of all this is that club members are – to my mind – more invested in how the program does. This is both in terms of performance on-court and what they do outside the gym (club growth, community service, etc.). This leads me to wonder ….

Would athletes in other structures be more invested if they were more involved in the off-court parts of their programs?

I’m thinking primarily here of school programs (college/university or even high school), but the same idea could potentially be addressed in a more professional club context. We sometimes talk about the need to have players feel like they are part of the process of determining how they train and/or play. This would simply take that same idea and apply it to the more administrative side of things.

Obviously, there are things which will have to be done by the coaching staff for one reason or another. For example, NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes from recruiting. There are plenty of things they can help out with, though. Making travel arrangements. Doing scheduling. Setting up community service activities. The list goes on.

As an added bonus, if we players help out with that kind of stuff we can have less administrative staff. That means lower costs. 😉

Also, the admin experience wouldn’t hurt in terms of the athletes developing useful job market skills.

Just something to think about. Feel free to tear the idea to shreds in the comment section below. 🙂

Coaching Log – Sep 14, 2015

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2015-16.

Here’s how things went over the second week:

We had two guest players in training, including an OH who played for the club two seasons ago that we’ve been trying to bring back into the fold (logistics have been a problem). I knew about one of them, but didn’t find out about the other until about 30 minutes before I had to leave for training. Needless to say, that forced me to rethink the plan. On the plus side, though, it allowed for 6 v 6 work, which we hadn’t been able to do since the prior Tuesday.

I had them start with 21 as a ball-handling warm-up. We were only on one court, so that meant groups of 4 rather than 3 as I would have preferred. Their objective was to go all the way through the 3 stages non-stop. Interestingly, only one group was able to do so before I had them all shift to 2 v 2 over-the-net pepper to finish warming-up from an attacking perspective.

I followed that with a bit of serving, some back row only Speedball Winners 3s, and then standard Winners 4s. The latter two both featured defined teams. For the standard Winners I added a requirement that teams must double block against a front row attack. My motivation there was to both work on blocking and to ensure the hitters were attacking in a somewhat realistic situation – at least from a block perspective. It took them a while, but eventually they got the blocking situation figured out.

I used about the last hour to run the 22 v 22 game to keep working on serve reception and development of the offense. We only got through 3 rotations, though, so the plan was to finish up with the other 3 on Tuesday when I knew we would again have 12 players.

I started off with an awkward 13 players for training, though one of my OHs was having some physical issues, so she ended up on limited duty (serving and some video). I started it off by splitting the setters and a libero out to working setting reps, and the rest to work on blocking movement as warm-ups. I then moved the MBs over to work with the setters and had the remaining hitters doing 3 v3 over-the-net pepper to continue their warm-up. After doing some serving, we finished the last 3 rotations from the 22 v 22 game the night before, then played one standard game to 25.

After training I addressed some things the players wanted to bring up with regards to how we want to play, getting in more focused serve reception work, and adding conditioning to training.

More focused serve reception work is something I’ve been thinking about in terms of dealing with the limits of space for serving when having multiple courts up. I think I have a solution for that, though.

I explained that adding conditioning to training (it was only one player asking for it) is not something I’m inclined to do separate from from what is achieved on the court since we only have 9-10 hours of training per week. I will, though, be adding pre-hab/prevention work at the start of all but our Monday trainings starting next week.

As for how we play in certain respects, I told them we’d walk through some things like defensive positioning at the start of Wednesday’s training. I also needed to make a decision about who takes the 2nd ball on a setter dig. That was something I put off until seeing how we were going to play defensively (libero in 5 or 6), which has now been decided (in 5).

Back to the core 10 players for this session. We started with a walk through of how I want the team to play defense in terms of the general system in the back court and the movement and placement of the blockers. We also sorted out who will take the second ball on a setter dig. As we talked about, though, all of this is subject to change based on opposition and how the team’s play evolves over time. We also talked about seam responsibility in serve receive. This is something we addressed before, but the players were using a mixture of approaches, so we needed to clear that up.

Following up on the serve reception, the active part of this training session involved a lot of it. I had them do a series of servers vs. passers games, had then play Speedball winners on a narrow court, and did a serve reception centered 5 v 5 game for the last part of the practice.

I took passing stats through all three activities. I know I missed a handful, but we still had more than 200 total receptions scored, 150 of which were passes by the OHs, OPPs, and liberos. That group collectively averaged just about 2.60 on a 4 point scale (4 = perfect, 3 = good, 2 = out-of-system, 1 = overpass, 0 = aced), though that doesn’t account for a couple of shared-fault aces. My primary libero candidate came in at 2.95, strongest in the group. Obviously, I’d like to see higher numbers, but we have some tough servers in the group, and I encourage aggressive serving in training, so I’m not panicking at this point.

This was the first session where I designated one main area of concentration for practice and developed everything to build in that direction (this is something I will do regularly from now on). My main focus in this training was on the offense, specifically with regards to creating advantageous attacking situations for our hitters (e.g. 1 v 1s, attacking seems, etc.). I had two additions for training, so a total of 12.

After having them do some 2-contact (dig-attack) over-the-net, first 1 v 1 and then 2 v 2, I split the group on two courts. The setters and MBs went to the side court while the main court was everyone else doing serving and passing. I had the middles go a couple times through with each setter running front and back quicks, then rotated through the OPPs and OHs in pairs to work on 1st and 2nd tempo attacks.

After the we shifted to just the main court. I had them play Winners 4s using defined teams. We went narrow court (roughly 2/3rds width) and I had them play 2 up, 2 back. The setter and either the MB or one of the 2 OHs (on on the team that had no MB) had to play front row and the hitter had to run front or back quicks, with one of the 2 back players also being a front row attacker.

From there we shifted to 6 v 6. The primary game was Bingo-Bango-Bongo, but after each successful big point scored, I mixed in a different game to give the MBs a break (only had 2). It was 5 v 5 game to 7 with the MBs alternating serves. There was an OH and OPP or Setter at the net, with three in the backrow.

We finished up with two regular games, but with bonus points. In this case, a team got an extra point for a front or back quick kill. They got a bonus point for a 1 v 1 attack on a set to one of the pins (regardless of whether a kill was registered), and +2 if they got a 1 v 0. Stuff blocks also earned a bonus point. I would have liked to have seen a few more, but bonus points were recorded for everything but the 1 v 0.

The team had a combination club briefing and team-building type of outing organized by the team manager this day. It started with a group team goal setting exercise and a discussion of club expectations (behavior, contribution, dress code, etc.). From there they went to a recording studio where they were recorded signing their own version of a popular song (this will no doubt get on YouTube at some point!). They finished up with a trip to a place that runs group/team challenges.

The players did not know in advance what they’d be doing at any point along the way. Aside from having to sit through the talk about club expectations, they had a lot of fun together.

Thoughts and observations
Friday’s training seemed to suffer from a dip in concentration and focus. There were times the serve reception was really bad, especially for one or two key players. I do credit the servers for giving them tough balls, but I could see looks on faces that told me players weren’t totally dialed at points. Up to now I’ve allowed the players to have music on during training. Moving forward, we’ll only have that during the warm-up phase. I don’t know if that will impact focus at all, but it’s more game-like, so it’s a move I need to make anyway as we get ready for our first pre-season match on Saturday.

Other stuff
We had an OH from the 2013-14 team in train three of this week’s sessions. She did not play last season, but we’ve been hoping to get her back. The issue is transportation, which the club is trying to sort out. She was a bit rusty in her first training on Monday, and had a little bit of a physical issue, but as the week went on she her quality became apparent. It would be good to have another strong pin hitter – in training, if nothing else.

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.

Creating a Culture of Success

During the American Volleyball Coaches Association convention in 2013 I attended a session titled Creating a Culture of Success on the second day. It was a panel talk featuring the staff of the UCLA men’s volleyball program. Head coach, John Speraw, is also the USA men’s national team coach. One of the more interesting features of that staff is the presence of Andrea Becker. She is actually a sports psychologist rather than a proper volleyball coach. I jotted down a few specific comments and ideas from the talk I thought worth sharing.

The first idea of the talk was the culture of the coaching staff and how that influences team culture. The point was how the coaching staff operates trickles down into how the team trains, plays, and performs. This was linked in with the idea of knowing yourself as a coach and being yourself consistently. Also, being who you want the team to be. I wrote about this idea in the post Players and teams reflect their coaches.

At one point they mentioned the idea of accountability between and among players. Coaches often think that having players accountable to each other is a good thing. Andrea suggested, though, that this isn’t necessarily the best way to go. I think the idea was when you put players in a position to be critical of each other, rather than leaving it to the coach, it doesn’t develop the type of positive team dynamic you’re after. To my mind, this feeds into the setting of expectations idea I talked about a bit in the Priorities for coaching a new team post.

Another key point made was that treatment of players should be equitable rather than equal. It is a question of fairness. Equal treatment implies that we treat all individuals the same way. On the face of it, that may seem like the right thing, but equal doesn’t necessarily mean fair. What is right for one player in a given circumstance may not be right for another player, or even the same player in a different circumstance. Thus the idea of equitable treatment. If I remember correctly, the idea of team rules came up in conjunction with these thoughts. Someone shared a saying by John Wooden which was something along the lines of, “When I started coaching I had lots of rules and a few guidelines, but over time that turned into a few rules and lots of guidelines.”

I think the rules and equitable treatment ideas role up into the kind of overarching thought of the session, which was being focused on meeting the needs of the athletes. This is something particularly relevant in a school volleyball setting where the lives of the athletes are about much more than just playing the sport. Their time with the team is a part of their overall personal developmental experience – potentially a very influential one. We coaches need to have that in mind to do right by them.

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