Tag Archive for Coaching skills

Coaching team strategy and tactics during a match

A long-time reader sent me the following question.

Being an avid reader of your publications I would like to hear your thoughts on coaching tactics during the match.

I understand collegiate and professional level coaches use tactics as part of their training and preparing for opponents. Most coaches that coach at the youth level do not seem to use tactics, or very little. I say this because I just spent 9 days of 10 at USAV Girls JrNat Championship and really realized how much coaches coach skills instead of tactics. Coaches seemed to only provide feedback when errors were made and during timeouts. I guess the only ‘tactics’ I did see were where to serve. Top level open coaches for the most part just sat or stood without providing feedback was disappointing.

Tactics vs Strategy

I should first clarify terminology here. Generally speaking, tactics are the things you do to execute a strategy. For example, you might decide you want to attack against the opposing team’s weakest blocker as much as possible. That would be the strategy. The tactics would be the offensive play(s) you run to make that happen.

Let’s say the other team’s setter is their weak blocker. You could run your middle on a quick to try to hold the opposing middle. That would give your outside hitter a 1-on-1 swing against the setter.

Pre-planned vs. On the fly

Strategy and tactics are often determined ahead of time as the result of scouting. When you have access to video or the ability to watch a team before playing them – or have played them before – this is the standard approach.

They can also develop out of something you see during the match, though. An example of this comes from when I coached the Exeter women. My second year we played Cardiff at the end of our league season. They had small setter who was not a realistic blocker. They had an athletic middle next to her. I noticed early on that they were basically having the middle try to block by herself on sets to Position 4. The problem was that usually meant she was late getting there and floating. So I instructed the team to attack there as often as possible when the setter was front row. It was highly effective.

Why not talk strategy and tactics during a match?

The core of the emailer’s question is why coaches – especially club coaches – don’t work more with their players on strategy and tactics during matches. I think there are a couple of possible reasons for this.

The first is taking a strictly developmental mindset. By that I mean they have opted to focus just on technique and player development. This may be a specific choice or the result of inexperience. I think a lot of newer coaches tend to go this route because they haven’t developed the ability to take a wider perspective as yet. That said, there are certainly times and situations where it makes sense to keep things simple and not worry about strategy and tactics.

The second way a coach could look at things is that they are just going to focus on their side of the court. There may be some tactical elements to this, but generally speaking they aren’t thinking about what’s happening with the other team. It’s more about playing the game that is immediately in front of them. In this case the coach is probably focused on things like block and defensive position, executing on offensive plays, and things like that. It can be hard for a solo coach to watch both sides of the net, so oftentimes just watching their own is the way they go.

That said ….

Having provided the reasons why a coach may not give much attention to strategy and tactics in a match, I think failing to incorporate it into the team discussion misses a teaching opportunity. Yes, of course, if you spot a weakness your team can take advantage of (per my Exeter example above), then that’s important as well. This is especially so if you coach in an environment where winning matters. I think there’s more to it, though.

As I’ve written previously, we can’t direct everything our team does. It’s just not possible in our sport. The players have to work things out for themselves on the court much of the time. That’s a skill they need to develop. If you don’t talk strategy and tactics with them you are effectively stunting their growth. Players need to learn how to both analyze the competitive situation and devise solutions to the challenges they face.

This is the sort of thing you work with them on during film, while scouting teams live, in practice, and during matches. It’s all part of raising their volleyball IQ.

On proving yourself and winning

There’s a really interesting quote from Nebraska coach John Cook in his book, Dream Like a Champion.

“As coaches gain experience, however, that pursuit of winning goes away. Your work becomes more about coaching: the journey of each unique team and seeing individual players develop. You begin to enjoy all of those things a lot more and they become more important than winning. Winning is still important, of course, but you stop making yourself miserable over it. I enjoy coaching more now than ever before and I am able to learn so much more about myself and my role as a coach because I am not so worried about proving myself every day.”

This is a very insightful quote. At least it strikes a cord with me personally. Somewhere along the line I stopped fixating so much on winning and losing. That isn’t really in my control, so why stress about it so much?

I think Cook’s last sentence, though, begs a question. Is winning the only way we can prove ourselves, especially early in our career?

I touched on this subject before in terms of who we must prove ourselves too. I didn’t, though, really get into how we do that.

Let’s face it, most of the time people – including ourselves – tend to think in terms of winning. This is why we have youth coaches specializing kids early rather than developing them as all-around players. I wrote about that in the post Coaching Youngsters Like College Players.

Yes, sometimes winning is how you prove yourself. Not always, though. I’d actually venture to say, not even most of the time. Yes, if you’re at Nebraska, as Cook is, people expect you to win. If you don’t, you’re out of a job. When you think about the vast majority of teams, however, you’ll realize having fun and getting better are really the main focus points. As a coach you prove yourself by accomplishing those objectives. At least that should be the case. The problem is people tend to forget that in the heat of battle.

Actually, this is how coaches get in trouble sometimes. I have a coaching friend whose professional club fired him because he was overly competitive. He was focused on winning as how he would prove himself when the club leadership had a different focus for the team. Just goes to show that you need to know what matters to those who count.

Getting the most out of video

An interesting discussion was started in a Facebook group on the subject of sharing video with players. It began with the following statement.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that if we REALLY want kids to ‘forget the past’ then allowing them to view past performance with an eye to correcting all their mistakes seems kinda silly. I much prefer to focus on what they are doing right and let the bad stuff ‘go extinct’.

There are a few ways we can unpack this. I want to address this idea of “forget the past” before getting into how I think video is most useful.

When to forget and when to remember

To my mind the idea of letting go of errors is most specifically related to the performance phase. By that I mean a player will perform better if they can forget the error they just made and get on with playing the next ball. I wrote about this before in Ways to help players put errors behind them.

This, however, is quite different than the development phase. In the latter case players must absolutely acknowledge their errors. More than that, they need to look at them critically so they can go about trying to correct them. This is a hugely important part of the intentional practice process. See the post Climbing Mistake Mountain, and if you haven’t already, consider reading The Talent Code.

My point is you cannot shield players from their errors in the learning part of the process. They must see them. That said, they should also see when they do it correctly so they can see the contrast. This is extremely important when they don’t understand what’s leading to bad outcomes – and we can’t assume they do.

By the way, it’s important to know which phase you’re in. If you want players to have a performance mentality and let go of mistakes, you can’t then provide technical feedback when they make them.

Getting the most out of video

I use video a lot. If I have the capability where I’m coaching, I use delayed video during practice. This gives players instant visual feedback on what they just did. They can see it for themselves, and link what it felt like kinesthetically with what actually happened. I can also provide additional comment on what they’re watching. This is for both the errors and the good repetitions, so you get both error recognition and confirmation of successful performance.

Delayed video in practice is obviously a raw feed. There’s no chance to edit it, though as coach you can draw the player’s focus to something specific. It’s that latter element that I think needs to be a big feature of providing players with game footage after the fact.

While I agree that if just shown raw video players will tend to fixate on their mistakes – certainly female players tend to be that way – I don’t actually think that’s the biggest concern. To me the problem tends to be a lack of specific focus on what’s most important.

That’s where you have to provide the focus. The most direct way to do that is to edit the video so it only shows what you want the player(s) to concentrate on. That’s not always a reasonable option, however. In that case it becomes important for you to get them to look at what they need to see, and to ask them specific questions related to it. They’ll probably pick up on other stuff anyway, but at least you can keep the conversation moving in the direction you want. This goes for both watching themselves and watching other teams.

Notice that all of what I’ve described above is developmental phase usage of video. None of it takes place during the performance phase. If I were to share performance phase video with my team or players, it would focus on tactical adjustments. I would not show them technical elements.

One final piece of advice

I’ll leave you with one last recommendation. Keep it brief. One of the great aspects of the delayed video is that the player(s) can look at what the just did quickly and get right back to the action. When watching regular video, though, that’s not the case. Attention spans become a problem. As a result, it’s best to keep thing as tight and directed as you possibly can. You can go longer when you’re in a one-on-one with a player, but if you’re in a group session you’ll lose their attention quickly.

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.

If you think coaching is easy, you’re probably doing it wrong

Mark Lebedew wrote a post titled How To Become A Coach. In it he shares a story about a former player relatively new to coaching talking about how hard it is to coach. I’ve heard something similar in my own coaching travels at different times. Players often don’t realize the amount of work that goes into good coaching. As a result, when they attempt to make a shift into coaching after they finish playing they get a major shock.

I’ve long been a proponent of players doing some coaching along the way. Many of the college players I’ve coached over the years have coached juniors. The three Americans on the Svedala team I coached professionally in Sweden were coaches for the club’s youth teams. One the one hand, I thinking coaching makes players better. They learn to look at things differently, and that can have a real positive impact on their play. On the other hand, the experience of being a coach helps them appreciate better the sorts of things their own coaches deal with on a regular basis.

Of course, some of the players are better coaches than others. That’s a function – at least in part – of having the types of skills coaching requires. They aren’t the same as those necessary to play volleyball at a high level.

None of them are really good coaches, though, for a couple of simple reasons. One is lack of experience, and the other is lack of education. The latter is Mark’s primary point in his piece. Paraphrasing, he says go to every course, clinic, practice, and match you can; talk to everyone you can and ask lots of questions; and do all the work you have to do, even if you don’t like. And you have to keep doing it. This is something I wholeheartedly endorse, having done just that sort of thing myself, with examples here, here, and here.

It should be noted that education is not enough, though. One of my early Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews was with Paulo Cunha. For many years he directed coaching education in his native Portugal. Paulo made the comment during our conversation that just getting a certification doesn’t make you a coach. People may think it does, but in some ways it’s just the beginning of the process.

Coaching is a challenge on many levels. If it isn’t, you’re probably not doing it right. To my mind, that’s a big part of what makes it interesting and compelling.

 

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.

 

Why are some coaches more successful than others?

Volleyball Coach

The following was asked in a Facebook volleyball coaching group.

If you can identify the three most important reasons why some coaches are more successful than others, what would they be?

This is a subject I wrote about in different ways three times previously. In Judging coaching greatness I looked at how it’s very often national team coaches who get “best coach” recognition – at least globally. In another I shared some Traits of successful volleyball coaches. Finally, I wrote about The two biggest jobs of a coach.

Of course the subject of coaching success is a major part of Volleyball Coaching Wizards.

The question here, though, isn’t necessarily about coaching greatness. It’s about success. In those terms I know immediately what the top of my list of reasons why some coaches are more successful than others. After that it’s a bit fuzzier, but here goes.

More talent

We can argue about the definition of talent, but the bottom line is you are far more likely to win with better athletes and better players. This is why recruiting is such an important part of college coaching. It happens at the club level too – and even with high schools in some cases. The pressure to get the best athletes – and thereby have the best chance to win – at times leads to rules violations and unethical behavior, as we hear from time to time.

Even if winning isn’t the main objective, having the right type of players matter. That’s in terms of attitude, athleticism, work ethic, etc.

Communication skills

A frequent answer to the question is the ability to communicate well. That’s definitely one I’ll go along with. It’s really hard to accomplish big things as a coach if you cannot get your message across to your players. And receive information back, as well.

A vision

Success can have a lot of different meanings. Sometimes it’s about winning. Sometimes it’s about player development. Whatever the case, to succeed you must have a vision of what that is and how to get there. This is the foundation of the work you do on a day-to-day basis and speaks to your priorities.

Beyond that …

I think the above three elements are fairly universal to all coaching situations. Beyond them things start to be more situation and/or coach dependent. What makes for a successful college coach can vary quite a bit from what a juniors coach needs to be at the top level. And it’s a different situation coaching 12s new to the game than coaching 18s trying to win a bid to Junior Nationals.

Also, things can balance out in ways. As a coach you may be stronger in one area that makes up for a weakness in another.

What do you think? What leads to coaching success in your opinion.

Book Review: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

If you’re a coach, or teacher, and haven’t read the The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, make it the next book on your list.

The book starts of with some serious science about myelin development, which is a major factor in skill acquisition. Don’t worry, though. It’s not hard to follow, and more behavior based concepts quickly come in to play.

Basically, the book talks about how we develop skill (deep practice), what motivates that development (ignition), and how coaching fits into that equation.

There’s a part of Chapter 9 that I think really hits on a major factor in sports coaching. It compares the coaching of Brazilian soccer players with the training of violinists in Japan. In the latter case the teachers are constantly providing specific feedback to the students. In the former case, though, the coaches hardly say anything. Why is this?

It’s not cultural. It’s about the requirements of the skills to be developed. Playing violin is about consistency of very specific execution. Playing soccer is dynamic. Situations constantly change. As a result, the player has to continuously adapt to stimuli and find the right solution for their current situation. The games the Brazilian coaches have the kids play both create the situations they want them in and provide the feedback.

To quote Coyle, “The lessons the players teach themselves are more powerful than anything the coach might say.” This relates close to what I wrote about in Teaching or facilitating? It is also part of our need to think more broadly about feedback.

The book’s epilogue provides a bunch of real-life examples of the ignitition/deep practice/coaching link. They are from a bunch of different parts of life and society. You definitely want to give this book a read. It could change how you think about your coaching.

That said, there are a couple of little things worth mentioning.

First, while the book clearly presents a path toward creating skill in just about everything, it doesn’t really address constraining factors. In the case of volleyball, height is an obvious example. A short player can develop maximum skill as an attacker. That simply won’t be enough, though to make the national team roster.

Second, Coyle walks a line with respect to whole vs. part training. He talks at a couple of points about breaking skills down into their parts. That may be fine when you’re learning to play a specific note on a violin. As the late Carl McGown preached for years, though, in terms of the science of motor learning in our arena, training in parts is not as effective. This also ties in with block vs. random training.

So, as much as this book has some really great information, realize it’s just one part of the whole set of factors.

Communicating playing time prospects to non-starters

A question recently came up on the subject of talking with non-starters.

So many times when the discussion of playing time comes up, either the player or parent is asking what they need to improve on, or the coach uses improvement in particular skills as a prerequisite for more playing time. Now the paradox: As a coach, don’t you expect improvement from Everyone on your roster? If everyone improves, including the non-starter, is your starting team going to change? (probably not!). So by tying more playing time to improvement, aren’t you setting this player up for more disappointment?

This definitely represents an interesting conundrum for us coaches. In order for a non-starter to become a starter they need to get better. Either that or a starter needs to have a dip in form. You certainly hope and expect that the starters will continue to improve, though. If that’s the case, then the non-starter should never get into the starting lineup. So how do we handle this?

Control what we can control

First and foremost, it is important to get the non-starter focused on what they can control. They cannot control what others do. They can only control their own effort and attitude. It’s about putting in the work with intention. A potentially big part of this is making sure you give them at least as much attention as you give your starters. That way they don’t feel left behind or left out.

Different rates of improvement

A major consideration in this whole scenario is a kind of assumption that players improve at the same rate. This really isn’t the case, though. Player’s progress at different rates. That means non-starters can definitely overtake starters over time. This is especially true when you’ve got players at different points in their development. Younger players tend to make gains more quickly than older ones.

Don’t tie playing time to improvement

Here’s the mistake coaches can make. We obviously want to see our non-starters improve. Even if they never make the starting team, their better play in practice will at least create a higher level of play in that context (see A-team vs. B-team), challenging the other players more. We cannot, though, tie playing time to improvement – at least not in a nominal sense.

By that I mean we can’t tell players they just need to get better because the reality is that they need to be better than the starter(s) ahead of them. Thus, it’s a relative thing, not an absolute. You thus have to frame it more along the lines of, “You need to be better than (or at least as good as) Jane in …” That gives you room to base things on the relative levels of the player rather than absolute changes by the non-starter.

Note that all of this can tie in with your decisions on substitutions as well.

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