Here’s something I came across in a coaching group.

How important would you say problem-solving and critical thinking skills are in our sport? What are you doing to teach/enhance those skills among your team members?

How important?

My immediate answer to the first question is “Massively important!” At least with respect to problem-solving. Critical thinking is another thing which happens on a different level than game speed. Everything in volleyball is problem-solving, though. Every time we contact the ball we are faced with a problem to solve – what to do to achieve our objective given the scenario we’re in.

Think about a hitter. You have a set of a certain trajectory, distance from the net, and speed. You probably also have some kind of block. If the set is good enough, you’re thinking to score. Thus, your problem is how to do that. You presumably have a set of potential options from which to choose. Attack past the block? Hit off the block? Tip? Those are all potential solutions, and each has variations.

The idea is to pick the solution that gives you the best odds of the outcome you desire.

How to teach problem-solving

Teaching problem-solving is actually pretty easy. The game presents us with a great many opportunities. Of course you’ll want to focus for best effect. Put the players in the situation(s) you want to work on (e.g. attacking against a double block), then work with them on their decision-making. Help them recognize the potential solutions and work out which one is best. Focus on the decisions, not on the execution.

And keep in mind that you can work on problem-solving at the team level. The principle is the same. Put them in a situation you want to work on and have them come up with the best solution. It’s kind of a “beat the drill” concept.

At both levels, feedback and guidance are necessary. Specifically giving them the solution, though, is entirely counterproductive. Think about it. If you’re just going to tell them what to do, how do they learn problem-solving?

One other thing I should bring up. Problem-solving doesn’t just involve some kind of technical or tactical decision-making. It can be about more psychological elements, like working through frustration, putting errors behind them, and dealing with pressure.

How to work on critical thinking

As I mentioned above, critical thinking happens at a higher level, and slower than game speed. This involves understanding the use and limits of information. At a player level the area what most comes to mind in this regard is the use of stats and other analytic/scouting type stuff. So if we want to develop these skills we have to make players work through the inputs and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses.

By the way, it’s not a bad idea for coaches to learn this as well.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.