Tag Archive for Coaching skills

Going beyond maximizing player contacts

If you asked the players I coached while in England – and the coaches I worked with in that span – I think getting lots of touches on the ball would be something they’d point out as part of my coaching style. At least that was a major part of what I tried to do. Sitting in Jamie Morrisson’s session of the 2015 HP Coaches Clinic, though, I realized I should have been thinking a little more specifically about how I did that.

It’s not just about quantity

Jamie brought up the term Read-Plan-Execute (RPE) to describe the full idea of what we’re after. By that he meant having the player reading the action leading up to the ball coming to them, making a decision on how to play the ball (finding a solution), then actually executing the required skill. This is something I’ve largely tried to do. I didn’t quite have the specific internal terminology developed yet, though. As a result, I was probably less efficient about it than I could have been.

As coaches we can easily get caught up with the last part of that sequence, the execution. That’s the technical aspect of playing volleyball, after all. It’s my understanding that the technique focus really came into Western coaching in the 1960s. That’s when the Japanese teams were at the height of their international prominence. Coaches in many places sought to emulate their strong technical training focus. That hasn’t gone away in the decades since, though USA Volleyball (among others) these days takes a much more unified view of volleyball player development – broadly speaking, the game teaches the game.

Random vs. Block training

I’m not going to get into a full-on motor learning discussion in this particular post. It’s a big subject in its own right. There is one important point to make, however.

In Jamie’s presentation he showed a pair of charts which demonstrate the performance difference of working in a block training (controlled, isolated reps) vs. a random (game-like) training manner. They both showed that while block training results in consistently better progression of technical skill execution, when it comes to retention, transfer, etc. random training is far superior.

This is one of those charts:

block-vs-random graph

Notice how initially block training looks to produce better training result. When tests were done on transfer to application (think moving from drills to a game) the block group showed a sharp drop in performance. Compare that to the random group. They not only retained their training gains, they also improved further.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t worry about technical execution. Instead, we should do it in an environment which forces the athlete to perform all aspects of the skill. That’s where the RPE idea comes in.

What is a good rep, really?

Here’s an example.

When working on hitting, coaches sometimes toss the ball for players to attack. They no doubt think of it as a way to give the players lots of “good” reps. This may result in players who are good at hitting good sets with fixed timing. It stunts the players’ growth in terms of learning to handle different set tempos and placements, though. In other words, the coach has largely removed the read and plan aspects of RPE. The players are just executing.

We can come up with similar examples with just about every other skill. Think about anything that involves a player executing a skill off a tossed or otherwise very predictable controlled ball. When take the read or read-plan elements out, we actually hinder the long-term development of our players.

Making sure to include the read and plan elements

All of this means we should be conscious of how we structure our games and drills to make sure we are getting full RPEs for whatever skill or tactic we want to focus on at the time. This generally necessitates have the contact or game situation prior included. By that I mean something like when focused on setting, include a passer so the setter has to read the passer’s movement and position rather than simply going off a toss where little or no reading is involved. Or when working on free ball offense, having a free ball inducing situation on the other side of the net.

Now, having said that, we don’t want to get carried away. In the setting example you could quite easily find yourself thinking “I should be maximizing RPEs for my passer as well.” That might motivate you to put something random in the chain before the pass, which might then have you thinking about something random before that, and so on to the point of basically just playing and starting everything with a serve. There is definitely value in having lots of game play in your practice, but training is about being focused on developing a certain aspect of your players’ or your team’s development. As such, you need to constrain things in ways that will necessitate the removal of the random element at some point. The key is identifying where that should be.

The bottom line is that rather than thinking in terms of maximizing touches – as I’ve been doing – we should be thinking in terms of maximizing RPEs.

Judging coaching greatness

An article was posted on VolleyCountry a while back which posed an interesting question. Who is the Best Volleyball Coach in the World? The author then lists Bernardinho (Brazil), Eugenio George Lafita (Cuba), Nikolay Karpol (Russia), Zé Roberto (Brazil), Julio Velasco (Argentina), Viacheslav Platonov (Russia), and Givi Akhvlediani (Russia). There are probably a few different ways a discussion on this subject can go. I want to make a couple of initial points, however.

First, the question was “Who is…” not “Who has been…”. That means present tense. Some of the names on the list are no longer with us. Picky minor point.

Second, the author doesn’t actually answer the question in terms of quality of coach. Instead, he looks at it in terms of success at the international level. From that perspective it’s no wonder why the list is dominated by Brazilians and Russians. They are big countries with long histories in the sport. The funny thing is, the article starts with the following observation:

“There are several factors apart from the luck for being a good trainer and Head Coach of any sport. Sacrifice, dynamism, responsibility, creativity, enthusiasm and leadership have to be joined by the knowledge and experience acquired across the years.”

That’s all good. I doubt there would be too much argument. Here’s where he goes off the rails, though:

“But to be the best, you must possess other benedictions. First you must rely on a good program of development, besides high-level athletes with exceptional capacities that they should compare with those of their adversaries, and finally that these players and your staff, believe in the work that is carried out.”

I’m sorry. He lost me there. Luck and “benedictions” have nothing to do with whether someone is a great coach.

To my mind, great coaching is about getting the absolute most out of what you have. That means players, assistant coaches, facilities, equipment, administrative support, etc. There is always the tendency to think in terms of coaching from an on-the-court perspective. Anyone with experience, though, will tell you true excellence as a team coach is at least as reliant on the off-the-court stuff. Moreover, it’s all inter-related.

Great players do not make great coaches, just winning ones

You’ll notice in my definition of great coaching I didn’t say anything about having the best players. It’s quite easy to look like a good coach when you have loads of talent in your team. Outside observers are fixated on wins and losses. Here’s the thing, though. Winning with great players doesn’t make you a great coach any more than losing with poor players makes you a bad one. History is full of examples of coaches whose teams won in spite of them and who’s success faded once the players brought in and developed by the prior coach start to rotate out.

History is also full of examples of coaches of who did a great job coaching in bad situations. I’m talking about coaches of teams somehow disadvantaged relative to their competition. They are at much smaller schools or in smaller communities (think big-market vs. small-market professional teams). They are in economically disadvantaged areas. Their school doesn’t have athletic scholarships, but others in their league do. They have higher admissions standards and/or more rigorous academic requirements. We tend not to hear as much about the great job these coaches do, though, because they aren’t collecting loads of silverware and amassing a big pile of wins.

We see it in professional sports. The clubs with the most money, who thus can attract the best players, are consistently top of the league. Can we judge those coaches as the best because they are able to consistently win? Or are there better coaches lower down the rankings whose names aren’t always in the press because they simply don’t have the resources available to compete with the big boys?

I was in a situation like that myself. My 2013-14 women’s university team reached the national semifinals. Is my coaching effort for that year devalued because we didn’t win the title? I should hope not. My team had no players on athletic scholarships and the two top teams were chock full of them! There was simply no way we could compete. Third place was literally our best possible finish in those circumstances.

This is not me saying that having the best players takes away from the quality of the coach of a top team. It’s just easier to appear to be a great coach when you have the most talent and win on a regular basis. It’s harder when you’re left trying to make something out of far inferior talent. We simply can’t use final standings as our metric.

I will use myself again as an example. The men’s team I coached in 2012-13 finished 8th among U.K university teams. The 2013-14 team did one better, finishing 7th with less talent and experience. On the face of it, you might think I did a better coaching job the second year than the first. In fact, I would tell you it’s the other way around for a few different reasons. The second year’s team had a healthy dose of luck to even reach the last eight. In comparison, one little bad period of play probably cost the first year’s team 5th or 6th.

Great coaches tend to be specialized

There’s a specialization factor to consider when pondering the question of coaching greatness. Judging is not always an apples-to-apples comparison. Coaching professionals, for example, is very different from coaching a bunch of U12s. The pro coach may be great in their environment but fail miserably trying to work with the kids. That wouldn’t make them a bad coach any more than simply being in the professional game makes them a great coach. They became specialized by experience, temperament, and other influences. We can say the same about coaching male vs. female athletes, or being in a school structure vs. a club, among other dividing factors.

A narrow example of this specialization is the coach who is capable of operating at the top of the sport where the pressure, scrutiny, and ego issues are major challenges. It does not suit everyone. Many considered David Moyes an excellent coach while at Everton. He struggled mightily when moving to Manchester United, though (granted, it may not have been all about him). The successful coaches or managers at the elite level may not be the best trainers of players, but they are good in other critical areas that allow them to succeed.

The point is we each tend to have a niche in which we best operate. That doesn’t mean we can’t do a good job in other roles, though. It’s just that we probably have only one or two types of coaching at which we are our very best.

Who’s the greatest volleyball coach?

So bringing things back around to the list of best coaches, maybe that does represent the cream of the crop – at the international level. I’m hesitant to go along with even that, though. To really be able to make a fair judgement we need to compare coaches in a way that takes things beyond their own control out of the equation – like the athlete talent pool. After all, it’s much easier to be successful in terms of championships, medals, etc. when you have a massive population from which to select players – like Russia or Brazil (or the U.S.) – than if you come from a small island nation, for example. On that basis, Lafita may be the the best of the offered names. He achieved a lot with a relatively small set of resources.

Where, though, would you rate something like Audrey Cooper’s leading of Team GB to its first ever win in the Olympics in 2012? Or other coaches doing something highly significant for their national program, but which amounted to barely a ripple on the world stage? I think we need to be able to answer that sort of question before we can truly get to the point of judging relative coaching greatness and what it means to be an elite coach.

Lots of players, little space – Help!!

I had an email come in from a reader of the blog – or at least someone who stopped by for a visit. She asked:

I am currently coaching both a 5th and 6th grade team with a total of 22 players. However, we only have one small gym to use and we must practice them together a lot. Can you help me find drills to do that will include a lot of players?

I can totally sympathize with this problem. In my time coaching in England I was frequently forced to try to manage a lot of players in a small area – especially during try-outs for the university teams. It’s definitely a challenge.

The first thing I would bring up is something I know both USA Volleyball and Volleyball England – and I’m sure other federations – are proponents of at the grassroots/beginner level (and beyond). That’s mini volleyball. By that I mean not just playing small-sided games, but also playing on smaller courts. In England they have badminton courts in basically every gym. You can generally get 3-4 in the space of a volleyball court. Using them lets you go from 22 on one court to 5-8 on each court.

In the US badminton lines may not be as readily available, but it’s not hard to create them with tape, cones, etc. In terms of nets, you can use the badminton ones if you have them, or you can create your own long net to string across the gym. The great thing about working with beginners and youngsters is that you don’t really need to be overly concerned with net height. At Exeter the beginner group of university players often trained using standard badminton height nets.

USA Volleyball has a section on ideas for setting up mini courts in their mini volleyball guide.

The other idea I would toss out is stations. Break the gym up into areas where you can have players working on different skills. That will let you get them split up into smaller groups, which serves a similar purpose to mini volleyball. Smaller groups means more touches and less time standing around. You can then have them do movement and ball-control drills/games in 2s, 3s, or 4s.

Recognizing players for good training

Player recognition for their performance in matches tends not to be something which needs all that much coaching focus. Those who do well in competition tend to get plenty of praise for it from all different corners. Though sometimes we do need to point out good play which is not so obvious to those outside the team.

Training is a different story. Some rare circumstances aside, practice is only attended by the team, so there is no external source of recognition. That means it has to come from within the group. If there’s a good team dynamic, players will tend to provide on-the-spot recognition for each other during the session. That covers one aspect of it. You, as coach, are responsible for the rest.

Importantly, a big part of “the rest” is setting and maintaining expectations. You want praise and recognition parceled out when it’s deserved and it’s the result of doing things the right way. Training is when that right way is being established and developed. That makes it a key time for recognition, and for warranted constructive criticism (handled in the right way, of course).

The question is how to dole out that recognition.

The Exeter women’s team I coached had I think a quite good way to recognize players for a good practice. At the end of each session I brought them together to talk about how things went. That’s when I reinforced what we were working on, go over any administrative details, etc. We would then do the team cheer to conclude. Then I selected a player who stood out in my mind as doing well that training to lead the cheer.

I did not initiate the procedure myself, as it was basically already in place when I started working with the team. I definitely found it worthwhile, though. Not only did it allow me to recognize someone for having a good session – by their own standards – at times I could also use it to recognize a player who perhaps hadn’t received much in the way of specific notice or otherwise I thought could benefit from being at the center of attention for a moment.

A side effect of using this team cheer leading is that it sometimes led to moments of levity. I surprised a lot of players by picking them, which led to some funny responses like monetarily forgetting how to start the cheer. One season I had two players whose names I always flipped for some reason. I would look at one of them in the cheer huddle, meaning for her to take the lead, but say the other one’s name.

Funny moments aside, one of the things I like about this particular recognition procedure is that it serves the desired purpose of giving a deserved pat on the back. It does so in a low key fashion, though. You want to avoid making a player uncomfortable by singling them out for praise. Also, you don’t want the team resentful of someone who gets individual praise. Those sorts of things can have severe effects on team chemistry.

The cheer approach represents one sort of recognition – that is for doing well over a period of time, in this case a practice. There should also be recognition of a more immediate nature when a player (or group) does something deserving of it. We call this positive feedback. 🙂

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.

Players today!

“I really would not recommend the profession to anyone right now. Kids are different, kids, parents, administrators have way to much influence! Coaches hands are tied…..can’t push, can’t discipline…..parents and administration are one! YUK!”

Those comments are from a coach who was in the game at the NCAA Division I level for many years. They aren’t the only one I’ve heard these sorts of things from either. It even goes beyond volleyball – and beyond sports in general. I’ve heard similar sorts of views expressed by professors I know as well. They make me kind of chuckle in a way. After all, we always see the older generation complain about the younger one in some way, shape, or form.

Actually, from a coaching perspective the competitive part of me loves to hear that kind of stuff. There’s two reasons for that which might give me an advantage in either the coaching or recruiting arenas (or both). 🙂

The first reason is that I worked in a very player-centric environment while coaching in England. I didn’t have an administration to please (at least not directly), but rather a collection of student-athletes and their elected leaders. I essentially coached at their pleasure. That meant I had to earn and retain their respect. I had to both coach them on-court and guide them in the off-court club management. I must have done at least something right as they presented me with a signed ball (a legit one too!) at my final Christmas Party to thank me for my time with them.

The second reason is that I deal with my players as they are and am constantly asking the question of how to better communicate with, motivate, and educate this team or this particular individual. It could be viewed as having a growth rather than fixed mindset as I discussed in How do you view your coaching exams? I just think of it in terms of looking at the situation I’m currently in, getting the most out of things, and trying to find ways to improve it.

So to all those coaches out there whining about players today … hope you don’t have to go up against me because I’m going to eat your lunch! 😉

How do you view your coaching exams?

A while back Mark from At Home on the Court offered up a post on the subject of coaching and learning in volleyball (and sports in general). He made the comment:

The way I often put it is that the match is a test or exam of the coach’s work. 

The test/exam idea is one I’ve thought about in different ways over the years. It also comes up often in the Volleyball Coaching Wizards interviews. Mark is absolutely right. Match competition is what we train our players for, after all. We spend countless hours thinking about line-ups and looking at systems. We also scout the opposition to find a competitive edge. Unfortunately, very often a coach’s grade on these exams is strictly based on winning or losing. This is potentially problematic on many levels.

Let’s put aside external expectations for the moment. Instead, let’s think internally. It is quite easy for a coach to equate their record with their self-worth. Wins are an indication of skill. At the same time, losing is a sign of failure. This is true even though outcomes are often determined by factors beyond our control. I personally dreaded coaching in matches sometimes. In the context of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, I had a fixed coaching mindset. I identified myself as a good volleyball coach. I didn’t want to risk being faced, through losing, with an indication that I wasn’t.

Side note: If you haven’t read Mindset yet, I recommend you do.

Somewhere along the way, though, I developed a more growth oriented match coaching mindset. These days matches are sources of feedback. They indicate the team’s progress and what we need to work on to improve and develop toward our objectives. Does that mean I don’t experience successes or failures? Does it indicate that I don’t want to win? Of course not! I just choose not to frame the outcomes in terms of my identity as a volleyball coach. Instead, I use them to help me see what’s working and where I could potentially use some improvement. And that goes WAY beyond just match coaching.

How many points is a coach worth?

I documented in my coaching log my work with the University of Exeter’s women’s during the 2014-15 season. I also coached the men. Unfortunately, conflicting schedules saw me only coach the first team guys in matches twice. It was decided by the club for me to prioritize the women in those cases. One of those matches was a loss to the top team in the league. The other was a comfortable win over a team about on our competitive level. The guys played four additional matches. One was against the second best team in the league, one against the team they beat, and two against one of the other teams of about the same competitive level. All four were losses, though well-fought in the latter three cases.

After hearing at one stage about how they lost one 0-3, but with very tight scores, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we could have flipped things around and come out with a win if I were there for that match. That made me wonder how much impact a coach has on a match between two reasonably closely matched teams.

Obviously, as coaches our biggest impact comes in how we train our teams and prepare them beforehand. What impact, though, do we have come game day? Some suggest we can have a lot, but with a big bias to the negative.

The captain of the university men’s team two seasons prior once told me after a come-from-behind match victory that they wouldn’t have won without me. That sort of thing warms a coach’s heart. I don’t recall the specifics of the match to be able to say what particular influence I might have had on the outcome, though. We’ll never know if he was right or not.

The most direct influence we have is in the form of line-up decisions and substitutions. We also call timeouts. Those are overt interventions. Less obvious is the style and content of communication with the team and individual players during breaks. There are also tactical/strategic adjustments during the match.

I would venture to say that the more experienced the players and the higher the level of play the less influence the coach has during the match. This is especially true given all the scouting and game planning that gets done in advance. It’s different at lower levels. There’s a considerable amount of teaching happening. Also, less scouting information is available. I’d suggest there are more opportunities for the coach to influence things in different ways with those sorts of teams.

The closest thing I can offer up as a potential indication of the influence of a coach on match outcomes is the record of the teams coached during my time in England. They played a total of 189 matches, of which I was on the bench for 130. The win percentage for those matches is 6% higher when I coached than when I wasn’t. I’m not sure how valid that comparison is, though. We’re talking about effectively eight different teams. That’s the university men and women over three seasons and a local women’s team over parts of two seasons. It’s across five or six different league and cup competitions. Also, in some cases someone else coached the team (admittedly someone much less experienced).

For the purposes of this discussion it would be better if I dropped the clearly lopsided match-ups from the tally. I was definitely on both sides of those! We could also look at set and point differential comparisons. Unfortunately, I don’t have that level of granularity in my records. Even if I did, the comparison might still not have the right composition to be truly valid.

Any thoughts?

A Collection of Secrets of Brilliant Coaches

An article went up a while back on Huffington Post on the subject of coaching that I’ve meant to discuss for a while. It includes 35 “secrets”. They are generally worth looking through, but I wanted to address a few of them specifically.

6. Begin with the end in mind. This is all about knowing your priorities, which I’ve written about a couple of different times before (here and here to name two). You can’t map your course if you don’t know where you’re going!

14. Give feedback in short, clear, precise, action-oriented spurts. Coaches need to keep in mind that they aren’t lecturers – at least not when they are on the court. The more you talk, the less they train. You need to keep your interruptions short, to the point, and geared toward what the players need to do.

15. Are careful about how they measure success. This is a tricky one. The focus is meant to be on keeping things process oriented rather than outcome. That’s fine in general terms, especially since outcome depends on a lot of things out of our control. Unfortunately, as coaches we sometimes (oftentimes) have wins and losses as the key metric of our own success. We need to be able manage things from both perspectives.

27. End practice before the athlete is exhausted. Mark Lebedew, in a post from At Home on the Court, talks about something related to this. From a technical training perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to exhaust our players. Granted, conditioning is a different story, but in that case priorities must be clear. This is something that you probably need to communicate to your athletes. Some of them will feel their level of fatigue at the end of a session equates to session quality.

34. Understand that fun is an essential element in training, no matter how elite an athlete becomes. In the grand scheme of things, players definitely need to have fun training for and playing their sport. I would argue, though, that as coaches we sometimes have to put our players and teams under pressure in less than fun kinds of ways to help them grow and develop. I periodically will design a session that I know is likely to be frustrating because those sorts of things happen in matches and the players need to learn how to overcome it.

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