Tag Archive for team psychology

Making a cultural change

A couple of articles out of New Zealand a while back caught my attention. They have as their focus Hugh McCutcheon. He’s a Kiwi who coached the USA national team in two Olympics and now leads the University of Minnesota program. One article relates to Hugh helping out the NZ federation in a push to develop more female volleyball coaches.* Apparently, there is a growth surge in girls playing volleyball in the island nation, which is certainly good to hear. If nothing else, that will help develop more female coaches. It will likely take at least a generation to have a meaningful influence, though. Given the trials and tribulations of trying to encourage and sustain women in volleyball coaching in the US and elsewhere, it might be interesting to follow how things go.

Of perhaps more interest from a coaching perspective, however, is the other article which focuses on team culture. In it Hugh talks about making a series of changes to how things operated at Minnesota. Some were akin to ones we brought in during my time at Exeter. To be honest, I was surprised at a couple of them. Not that the change was made, but that they weren’t in place already.

As the article notes, making changes at that level is likely to cause some issues. In this case it saw several players decide they no longer wanted to be part of the team. From Hugh’s perspective that was fine because it essentially saw those who would likely not go along with what he was trying to do self-select themselves out. The challenge, however, can be dealing with external expectations while going through the likely rough patch while implementing changes.

The article actually got me thinking about the sort of things I might have to do in taking over a new program if I end up as a head coach – or working as an assistant with a new head coach – in the future.

Have you ever had to put through a cultural change? If so, what was it and how did you go about doing so?

* There’s some wild inflation with respect to a couple of stats in the article. The U.S. does not have 15,000 volleyball scholarship athletes. There are about 1700 women’s collegiate volleyball programs. That works out to about 19,000 roster spots. NCAA Division III accounts for nearly 5000 of them, and there are no scholarships at that level, so already we can see the 15k figure is wrong. Even at the Division I level not all programs have the full 12 scholarships, and some offer none at all. The idea that sand volleyball will get to 10,000 scholarship athletes is massively optimistic.

Surrendering self-interest for the greater good

Phil Jackson makes an observation in the introduction to his book Sacred Hoops which, paraphrased, goes like this:

Creating a successful team requires the individuals involved to surrender their self-interest for the greater good so that the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.

This is so true. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum with this sort of thing. One year, when I coached in NCAA Division I, certain players were more focused on their dislike of others and on trying to make them look bad than on the team effort or their own development. Not surprisingly, that was a horrible season.

On the flip side, the 2013-14 Exeter women’s team fully committed collectively to one objective – reaching Final 8s. Were there some personal frictions? Absolutely. You aren’t going to have 14 players who over the course of a 6-month season agree on everything and always get along perfectly.

I think as coaches we probably all know this on one level or another. We know that we have to try to foster the team orientation. One of our big challenges is trying to get our players to do that. Let me ask a question, though…

Are you sacrificing your own self-interests for the good of the team?

Ponder that and let me know what you think.

You might be surprised if you give them a chance

I previously referenced an article by Leon Blazer where he talks about coaching 12-and-unders. One of the things I really liked about that piece is how he talks about his youngsters running a quick offense. I bet there are a great many coaches out there who would never even think of trying that!

I bring it up because we coaches can sometimes get in the way of our players’ and teams’ development. This is because of our own limiting expectations, biases, etc. I wrote about this very thing in the post Don’t limit your players with negative thinking, but was reminded of it by an email I recently received. This coach working in a disadvantaged school said the following:

I run a 4-2 and don’t run quick sets in the middle. Why? Because we cant serve, pass, approach and hit, play defense, or attack Out of System well enough to spend the time to learn the skills to run a more sophisticated system.

Firstly, I really don’t like the use of the word can’t. It’s an absolute statement, and a negative one. That sort of thinking/speaking can be detrimental in many ways. I’d rather here something more along the lines of, “We need to improve our passing.”

With respect to working on the quick offense, obviously, every coach needs to set their training priorities. I can understand the need to put things above being able to hit a quick ball, but let me ask a question…

What’s the purpose of passing accurately – of being in-system?

If all you’re ever going to do is set your pin hitters, then there’s really not much need to pass a 3-ball. You’ll do just fine passing 2-balls. Guess what? Your players will probably figure that out pretty quickly. That creates a kind of mutually reinforcing pattern of passers passing off the net and setters establishing their target similarly away from the net (see Setter start position and the passing target).

I’ve had numerous conversations with coaches who’ve told me, “We don’t pass well enough to run quicks.” Guess what? If you don’t give the players a reason to pass more accurately and consistently – i.e. running quick sets and other plays – then they have nothing to push them do to so!

Have you ever seen a team successfully run a quick attack for the first time? They get REALLY excited. They want to do it again!

By the way, that doesn’t necessarily go away. I watched the setter for the top European men’s professional team during the 2015 Champions League finals repeatedly bouncing all over the court and flexing his muscles after his hitters pounded a quick set. Granted, he was a relatively young guy. Still, I’d venture to say he’s set a lot of successful quick attacks, even at this early stage in his career.

If your team wants to keep running successful quicks, what do you think that will motivate them to do? Hmmmm…. Pass better, maybe?

Importantly, being able to run quicks provides a concrete reason for passing well. That’s in place of some vague idea of what they should be doing. That leads to passing with intention. Anything you can get your players doing with more intention is going to be more productive and developmentally successful. This goes way beyond passing.

The point of all this is two-fold. First, don’t put unnecessary brakes on your players’ or teams’ development. Your job should be to push them to get out of their comfort zone, not to settle into one. Second, think about how different skills and elements of the game link together and how you can use one to help work on and motivate the players with respect to another. The results just might surprise you.

Positive coaching vs. being tough on them

A conversation was once begun by a juniors coach on the following basis.

He considered himself a positive coach, but had another coach run his team through a session. This other coach he described as being tough on the players, though not in a yelling, screaming sort of way. He observed his players responding with more focus and effort to the latter coach and was wondering if he was taking the wrong philosophy.

My immediate response to this situation is that being positive and being tough are not mutually exclusive. Here’s why I say that.

To my mind, being tough is about setting expectations and requiring the players meet them. This is largely related to things like effort, attitude, and focus. That, though, ties in with execution and performance. A tough coach does not allow players to backslide, to do less than what they are capable of doing, or to stop pushing themselves to improve. You can do all of this in a positive fashion, which is where you get the “tough, but fair” type of coaching. It can also be done in a negative fashion, which generally earns the coach much less flattering descriptions.

Our job as coaches is to teach and develop. We are not cheerleaders. Should we cheer our players when they do things the right way? Sure. Should we give them a pat on the back when they need it? Of course. We should not, however, pretend that everything they do is perfect because it’s not – and they know it. Just as constant yelling eventually makes players numb to it, constant praise can have a similar effect. Either that or players think they are better than they really are and are devastated when reality proves otherwise.

My impression of the situation described above is that this coach has been too much of a cheerleader and that the reason the new coach was able to have such a positive impact was that he challenged the players in new ways. That’s something we all need to be doing continuously.

When should you “Sub Six”?

I’ve written previously on the subject of the substitution decision. In this post I want to talk about a strategy I’ve seen employed at times in professional volleyball. I’ve also read about in My Profession – The Game. I don’t recall hearing talked about in any other context, though. It’s the idea of making subs not necessarily to try to elicit a better performance from your team in the present context, but with an eye toward the next set.

Let me lay out the scenario. It’s the third set of a match which is tied 1-1. Your team is struggling. The score is 17-8. You’ve called timeouts. You’d made the subs you thought might improve things, but it just hasn’t worked. What do you do?

A lot of coaches just simply don’t do anything. After all, what can they do? They have what should be their best team on the floor, but it’s just not getting the job done. It’s time to think about the next set. Maybe spin the rotation. Perhaps flip OHs.

What about simply taking all your starters out – or at least those remaining – and putting your bench on to play out the rest of the set? My guess is you’ve probably not really thought about doing that (though you may have fantasized about it). There are a couple of reasons for actually doing so, however:

Starter Reset

Putting your starters on the bench for an extended break gives them a chance to reset. They get to step back from whatever troubles they were having on the court and break any negative feedback loops that were going on. Time on the bench gives them a chance to watch the other team from outside for a bit. They also get to rest up a little ahead of the next set.

Opposition Psychology

When you have your second team out on the court, naturally the general level of play is likely to be lower. This has a couple of potential of potential positive outcomes for you. First, if the subs do play at that level then the opposition players may start to coast, which could pay dividends in the next set. Second, if your subs play above themselves and actually make things competitive, it could rattle the confidence of the other team. The opposing coach is going to be hesitant to make radical changes for fear of risking losing the set. That means in either case you could gain a psychological edge to start when you have your starters back in next set. And of course if your subs somehow managed to pull out the win you’d be in the driver’s seat!

Playing time

While perhaps not a great situation in terms of putting your players in with an opportunity to succeed, a runaway set like this does give you a chance to get your bench players some court time. The nice thing, though, is they’ve got nothing to lose. They can go out and play loose.

I should note here that this cannot be something the starters will interpret as being punitive. I’ve heard stories about coaches who subbed out the entire starting six basically out of disgust at how they were playing. That sort of thing isn’t going to accomplish much. It will probably be harmful, in fact. Instead, it must be clear to the players coming out that this is a strategic device and that they should see it as an opportunity to regroup to start the next set.

If you want to try this out some time you have to think about the timing of it in advance and have a plan because my guess is you won’t automatically think about it in the heat of battle. Our inclination as coaches tends to be to try to fix things now – or failing that, think about what we’re going to do next set. This substitution ploy works in the gap between the two, so you simply might forget about it as an option. If you actually plan it out – maybe talk it over with the team – you might be more inclined to remember. Failing that, you could give someone else the task of reminding you.

Playing to win vs. playing not to lose

Alexis at Coaches Corner had a post where he talked about sometimes it makes sense to not actually play to win, per se. His main point was that we often think only in terms of winning. In many circumstances, however, it makes more sense not to actually take the kinds of chances required to do so. That’s because the probabilities simply don’t work in your favor.

Think about a gymnast or an ice skater. If they do a super hard trick they could win, but their chances of actually pulling it off are low. If they don’t do the trick they won’t win. They would have a much better final standing than if they tried and failed, though. In volleyball this equates to the serving aggressiveness decision or going for it attacking a ball.

I confess, I didn’t actually think of that when I first read the post. I only just thought of it as I wrote this one! Instead, I was thinking about how volleyball teams can play to win or play to not lose in a couple of different senses of that, and how we as coaches factor into it.

Playing not to lose

If you’ve coached enough matches you will have seen examples of teams playing not to lose. They get ahead or are the clear favorites, but rather than just playing normally, they get conservative. They look to avoid mistakes. The problem is, that can lead to the opposition making things tight, at which time the team really can start freaking out and go into full panic mode.

I’ll share a personal example. At the end of the 2012-13 NVL season the Devon Ladies team was playing their final match away at the newly crowned league champs, Team South Wales. We were up 2-1 and ahead in the fourth when the wheels came off. The team got tight, TSW came back, and we panicked. I didn’t read the signs properly, and we ended up losing in 5. A few weeks later a similar situation developed at the South West Championships in the finals against the same team. We had been up, but let them come back. This time I recognized what was happening and got the team settled down in a timeout. We went on to score 9 of the next 10 points to win the match and the title.

Playing conservatively to win

There are times in volleyball where going for it makes sense. There are also times when that’s a poor percentage play. The most obvious example of this is in hitting. When a hitter gets a good set in an advantageous position then it makes total sense to be aggressive. When hitter gets a poor set, has no approach, and is facing a monster triple block, smashing the ball is not the brightest idea. Better to take something off and play a smart shot.

The difference between playing the smart shot in this case and not hitting aggressively when playing not to lose is one of intent. The smart hitter realizes their chances of scoring when in a bad hitting position are low and the chances of losing the point are high, so they opt for the course that gives the team better odds. The tentative playing-not-to-lose player is just scared and not thinking at all about what is more likely to lead to a point.

Coaching the difference

Ensuring your players fall into the to-win rather than the not-to-lose category often comes down to you. Are you training them from the perspective of doing what is most likely to produce a successful outcome? Are you encouraging them to take appropriate risks? If so, your teams will tend to have the right mentality. If, however, you have a gym environment where mistakes are punished then you’re more likely to see your team tighten up and play with fear when it’s crunch time.

Handling slows starts with First to…

Does your team tend to get off to a slow start?

I know I’ve had teams do that. A couple seasons back I coached a women’s team in Division I of the English NVL. It seemed like every set we struggled at the beginning for some reason. You can get away with that when you’re clearly the stronger team. It can really put you in a bind against more competitive teams, though. I decided to try to do something about it.

Breaking the game up

Back in the olden days, when it was sideout scoring and matches were played to 15 points, coaches sometimes encouraged their teams to break games (we didn’t call them “sets” then) into segments. Each segment was 5 points. Some coaches went so far as to have different approaches or focal points for each of those segments.

The NVL uses FIVB rules, and incorporates a technical timeout when the first team reaches 8 points, and again when at 16. This is the same procedure seen in international matches. It also used at the professional level – though not all competitions incorporate these breaks. Essentially, each set is chopped into three segments, just as coaches did with the 5-point ones before. [Note: It was decided not to use technical timeouts for Rio 2016.]

The idea of segmenting a set is something that came up in my Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview with Mike Lingenfelter.

Using segments to start better

Taking a page out of the old coaching book, I decided to use the segment idea. I though it could be a way to improve how the team started each set in terms of focus and performance. I basically turned it into a mini game and challenged them to be the first team to 8 points.

It worked quite well.

We didn’t always win that initial mini game, of course. We did consistently play with much more concentration and intensity in those early points than we had done, though. I used the same technique with my university teams at times when I thought they’d benefit from a bit more early-set focus, even if they weren’t necessarily slow starters. When I had a similar issue with my Svedala team I thought of this idea as well.

Make sure to look for causes

Of course if a team consistently struggles with slow starts then some analysis should be made into why that is. Does it reflect warm-ups? Is it something in the pregame talk? Is there an issue in how the team trains? Using these mini games may help, but they aren’t a long-term fix if there’s some other underlying issue which needs to be addressed.

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.

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