Tag Archive for team psychology

The cultural risks in taking over a new program late

An article on LinkedIn talks about what the author describes as “Second Year Syndrome”. It’s got a clear objective to get consulting business, but nevertheless brings up interesting points. Specifically, it looks at something that can happen when a new coaching staff takes over a team right before the season. The focus is on when the prior staff is fired. I think, though, there are parallels for a voluntary departure.

The reason the author focuses on the “fired” situation is culture. Here’s what she says.

“When a coach is hired close to the start of their season they do not have the time they need to develop the relationships necessary to accurately assess the team culture.”

This is certainly true. I’ve been in this situation a couple of times. Not following a fired head coach, but nevertheless taking over a team with no clear sense of the culture. That’s how it was my first year at Exeter. The same was true at Svedala.

The first season

I previously shared some thoughts on working with a new team from a session of the 2013 AVCA Convention. Culture did not specifically come up by name, but developing trust was. I think, whatever the situation, that’s key. No matter the culture you take over (and the assumption is when following a fired staff that it’s bad), trust is critical.

The challenge when taking over a team late like that is you tend to have a lot on your plate. You’re trying to learn all the in’s and out’s of the new program. You’re trying to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Chances are you don’t have a lot of time before competitive matches start, so you’ve got that to worry about as well. It’s very easy to forget the culture stuff. The article points out that this cannot be the case.

Here’s the thing, though. As the culture chapter from Volleyball Coaching Wizards – Wizard Wisdom indicates, culture is in everything you do. That includes what you do on the court in practice. It’s all about having the proper awareness of the work you do.

Heading into the second year

The idea in the article of the “Second Year Syndrome” concept is what happens if you don’t get a good handle on the team culture in the first year. Basically, the author believes the opportunity might be gone. She says outside help is probably the only way out in that case. But then she’s a coaching consultant, so of course she says that.

Will some outside help work? It might. Problem is actually getting it. Not always easy to find someone with the availability to spend the time and the observational skills to provide meaningful insights.

So what if you don’t have an outside perspective?

Not much choice. You just have to do the work. Keep getting to know the players and developing trust. Get rid of the players who won’t go along with the new program. Continue ingraining the culture you want in everything you do. Read the chapter from the Wizards book I mentioned above. It will for sure give you something to think about.

Selecting a team captain – one view

While reading the Nikolai Karpol biography, I came across the following quote.

“An important element in any victory is the team captain, the leader of the team is my main helper. She, both in life and on the court, has greater rights and greater responsibilities than the other players. The captain must be a player who understands the game and the coach’s thoughts, so when I choose a captain there is no democracy for me – I choose. The players have no say in it. There are sportsmen and women with a great deal of authority with their fellow players, but if they don’t understand me, they can’t be captains of the team I am leading. The captain must lead the team at training sessions and in the game, must know what to say to the referee, just as I would, she must know how the team is organised both on the court and in life. The captain is a player from whom I learn the problems in the team, both private and interpersonal conflicts. The captain knows more than the coach, she must know which problems should be hushed up and which ones need to be shared so we can solve them together.”

This is basically my own philosophy, as I wrote about before. I also wrote a post on the qualities of a good team captain which feeds into all of this. This is not the only approach, of course. That was the subject of a Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast episode. And team captains aren’t necessary in all situations. This particular approach works well for me, though.

Structure things to keep them coming back

When coaching beginners, youngsters, and anyone else where retention is an important consideration we want to design sessions that leave them happy and wanting to come back for more. Motivation is important for committed teams of more senior players too, though. We want them just as eager to come back. That’s something we should keep in mind when planning our practices and training sessions.

Start with the finish

I previously wrote about building practice from the finish. In that case I talked about thinking first about the last exercise you wanted in your session, then working backwards so you have a progression toward it. When thinking in terms of having players eager to come back for the next session, a similar mentality is appropriate.

There is what’s known as a serial-position effect which tells us we remember the last part of a sequence best. Psychologists call this the recency effect. What this means to us coaches is that if we want our players to think positively about our training sessions we should end them on something they will enjoy or otherwise find fulfilling.

Flipping back to the start

The other thing the serial-position effect tells us people remember best is the first part of a sequence. This is the primacy effect. This tell us that we should make sure the first thing we do in a practice session is engaging.

The muddle in the middle

So if the end and the beginning are best remembered after the fact by players, what should we do with the middle part? Obviously, you do what you need to do. If we follow the psychology, though, we realize this is the part of the session where you can put in the less intense, less exciting parts. Need to slow things down or lower the intensity to do more teaching? This is the section in which to do it.

Understanding their motivation

Before I leave you to go out and structure your next practice based on these principles, there’s one last important consideration. You need to have a good grasp of what your players find engaging and fulfilling. These thoughts from a former player of mine provide one player’s thoughts to that end. You need to think about your own group of players, though.

In my experience, competition tends to motivate male players (Kathy DeBoer backs this up). Many female athletes, however, like to feel they’ve had a good workout. This is a very general perspective, though. Level of play and type of team are influencing factors. It’s important that you, as the coach, understand what gets your players’ juices flowing most.

Do you foster a culture of alibis?

Back in 2014 I spent about 10 days at German woman’s club SC Potsdam during their preseason. Their coach at that time was Alberto Salomoni. Alberto shared the following on Facebook once. I believe it’s a translation from Italian.

“…. those who do sport know that you can not always win. The exception is to always win. The normal thing is the alternation of victory and defeat. I always said that i was proud of the team that won two World Championships and two European Championships, but i am equally proud of the team that lost the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. I am equally proud for one reason: because they knew how to lose. As we lost we did not say the referee was guilty, we did not have luck, one player, the coach or the manager were guilty. We said the opponents was better then us. Stop.

We built a mentality with the team, fighting what we call “the culture of the alibis”. What is an alibi? An alibi is to explain to someone, thing that i cannot do. Not because i am not able, but because there are always other reasons that have nothing to do with me or with my behavior/attitude. We are not the dream team, we are a team that dreams. Our dream is to win the Olympic Games and we will do everything for win it. If we will not win, we will not consider ourselves as loser. We will know that we failed a goal.

To failed a goal it does not mean that we are in the shit of the history of sport. This is very important especially for young people. Young people have to try to win in sport as much as possible. But don´t believe to people that say that the world is divided between winners and losers. In my opinion the world is divided especially between good and bad persons. This is the most important lesson. Then between bad persons are winners…unfortunately. And between good persons are unfortunately losers…”

Julio Velasco, “Il laureato” 1995

One day, hopefully we can get Velasco to do a Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview, as he is one of the true legendary coaches in our sport. I had the opportunity to see him present at the 2015 High Performance Coaches Clinic. As his comments above indicate, he’s got some really deep insights into coaching. Mark Lebedew shared another.

So, do you and/or your players get caught up in “alibis”?

I should note, Velasco’s comments remind me of something fellow legend John Wooden has talked about. He said in Wooden on Leadership that he was more proud of a team doing it’s absolute best than of winning a championship.

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.

 

Creating pressure in practice

How do you create pressure situations in your practice?

That’s a question coaches ponder a lot. Especially when they see their team crumble in intense match situations.

The fact of the matter, though, is that there are different types of pressure. Some are mainly individual, while others are more team.

Individual pressure

In the case of individual pressure, we’re talking about a situation where one player must execute. That could be at the service line. It could be in serve reception. Or it could be as a hitter. These are situations where the individual player feels the pressure to perform well. Actually, it’s probably more a “not screwing up” type of pressure in terms of their self-talk, but that’s a different subject.

Creating individual pressure requires putting a player in a position where they have to execute. There’s an example of this in John Cook’s book, Dream Like a Champion. In it he describes a hitter vs. defense game where one attacker must win a game against a full defense. If they lose, they play again. They repeat the game until the player wins.

Now, that’s an example of individual pressure in a very individualized situation. There are also ways to create individual pressure in a more team situation. The run-and-serve drill is an example of this from a serving perspective. If we think of serve reception, though, we can create a situation where one player receives every ball. Their team cannot execute the offense if they cannot provide a good pass. Alternatively, flip things around and say that only a specific hitter can score.

Team pressure

While individual pressure is about putting the spotlight on a specific player (or position), team pressure is about the collective. This is about the team needing to come back from behind, or perhaps to close out a set when ahead. It’s about them staying focused and connected when the pressure is on, and not falling victim to fear and doubt.

One interesting game you can play from this perspective is 25 or reset. I’ve also seen it referred to as “slip and slide”. Basically, if a team gets to 24 and does not score they have to reset back to wherever you started the score (e.g. 19). This combines the pressure to close a team out with the drive to keep fighting if you’re the losing team.

On a smaller scale, wash games are little pressure situations. The team must, for example, win two rallies in a row. That increases the pressure on the second ball – for both sides.

Consequences

A lot of coaches use some kind of punishment for losing to create pressure, like sprints. I’m not a fan of this, as I’ve discussed. Further, research suggests it actually may not improve motivation. If the desire to win is intrinsic, then losing should be enough of a punishment. You don’t need anything else. If your players aren’t naturally competitive, then you need to tie something they care about in terms of playing the game to winning. That, though, is a different topic of discussion.

Similarly, if a player cares at all about the quality of their play, then failing to execute at an individual level will leave them feeling disappointed. Why, then, is anything extra required? If your players are not worried about their quality of play, then you may have some other problems to address before worrying about how they do under pressure.

 

What are your playing for when there’s nothing to play for?

At some point most of us have a season where eventually there isn’t anything to play for anymore. For the purposes of this discussion I mean for example you have been mathematically eliminated from post-season contention. There are other “nothing to play for” situations, but this is probably the most acute one. It’s the situation where it’s easiest to lose the team and see motivation levels plummet.

So what do you do? How do you keep the players – and yourself – motivated to continue training and playing at 100%?

Performance goals

One answer it to have other things to play for. Let me use the 2017 Midwestern State University (MSU) team as an example.

Unfortunately, we knew going into the final week of the season that we couldn’t make the conference tournament. We were three wins behind with only two conference matches to play. Yet, we still had three matches left – a Tuesday non-conference match, then Thursday and Friday conference fixtures.

Since we couldn’t focus on reaching the tournament, we shifted our attention to some secondary goals we defined earlier. One of them was to not lose any of the non-conference matches we played against teams outside the Top 25. According to the records I could see, we hadn’t done that in any season at least as far back as 2008. We needed to win the Tuesday match to achieve that objective, which we did.

Another objective was to get to 7+ conference wins, which we hadn’t done since 2013. We got on that in our Thursday match.

Unfortunately, a third goal we couldn’t quite achieve. We wanted to end with a winning season. We went into our last match 15-15, but came out 15-16. Still, that kept us fighting right through the last day of the season.

To have performance goals like this, obviously you need to set them up ahead of time. It’s easier to say, “We still have these goals to work toward” if the players were aware of them before, than if you just pull them out once the main goal is out of reach. Sustaining motivation is easier than trying to create it.

Developmental objectives

There are also non-performance things you can work toward. Stuff on the developmental side of things tends to stand out in this regard. Younger players who haven’t gotten much court time can play. You can work on aspects of the game that you want to see get better for the future. Playing a different type of system is an option.

The one plus to not having anything to play for is that you also don’t have anything to lose. You can take some risks. The important thing, though, is you need buy-in from the team. They need to be convinced that it’s worth putting in the time and effort. If not, the motivation just won’t be there.

Emotional motivations

A third potential area of motivation to get through those final matches is the emotional side of things. They can cover a range of possible thought processes.

  • Bragging rights over our big rival
  • Do it for the seniors
  • Playing spoiler
  • Revenge
  • Have fun!

No doubt you can think of others that might fit in here.

The idea in all of this is that you find a way to always have something to play for or that you’re aiming at. This shouldn’t just be something that comes up at the end of the season. If you can set things up from the beginning of the year, it’s much easier to keep a team’s motivation consistently high all through the campaign.

Player-to-coach feedback from a team exercise

At the beginning of 2017 the Midwestern State (MSU) head coach gave everyone on the program – players and coaches – a task. Based on the book One Word that will Change Your Life, we each had to come up with a word that represented something in our life that we wanted to improve or otherwise focus on. The was about both volleyball and life. I chose the word consistency. For me that was mainly a personal thing.

The year 2016 was a big transitional one for me. I started the year in Sweden coaching profession, but then rather abruptly left. After spending about a month in Long Beach, CA, I then moved to Texas to coach at MSU in a very new locale, with new people, and in a new situation. I never felt like I settled things down into a good routine for myself personally. That is what motivated my word choice.

I was not thinking about volleyball when I picked my word – at least not directly. I believe I do a good job of being consistent with my teams (see this Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast). It’s a focus point for me, and my prior teams gave me positive feedback about it. More consistency in my personal life, though, would no doubt have positive knock-on effects to my coaching work

Fast forward to the early part of the 2017 volleyball season. The head coach brought us all together one day for an exercise. We were all given a sheet of paper and told to put our name and our word at the top. We then passed everyone’s papers around the room. One by one we wrote positive comments on each person’s paper about how they were doing with respect to their word – and perhaps more broadly.

Below you can see the front and back of my sheet. You’ll also notice that someone decided to give me a new title, and several smiley faces were added. Not sure who did that, but “Papa” has now stuck. :-/

Naturally, the comments focus on consistency. After all, that’s my word. I was glad to see that they also appreciated other things I try to bring with me, though. Knowledge is obviously one of those, as you’d hope if you’re coaching! The other is a sense of humor. Volleyball is a game. Being part of a team should be fun. We shouldn’t take things – or ourselves – so seriously that we forget that.

I hesitate to call this proper feedback. After all, it was specifically intended to be positive. That makes it pretty one-sided. Still, it at least helps one to see if certain things are getting across.

Click for full-sized version

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.

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