Scheduling is a consideration many coaches face in one way or another. If you’re working at the juniors level you can pick the tournaments you attend. Colleges and high schools have defined leagues to play in, but coaches there usually have flexibility with non-league matches. Professional and national team coaches have set schedules for official matches, but can have lots of potential in terms of friendly ones outside that.

To the extent you can define your schedule, what should it look like? We’re talking in terms of developing your players, to be clear.

Alexis at Coaches Corner shared something from a presentation he attended. It speaks to this very question. The presenter offered up this sort of breakdown:

  • 3 ‘Equal’ competitions, where you make corrections
  • 2 ‘Below’ competitions, where you make mistakes and take risks (and still win)
  • 1 ‘Above’ competitions’, where you praise them regardless of the outcome

Where “equal” means teams basically at your level.

So we’re talking about 50% competitive matches. Then, from the rest, 2/3rds should be matches where you are strongly favored and 1/3rd where you are clearly the underdog.

Winning as a factor

You may have heard the phrase first you win, then you get better. I can understand it from one perspective. That is do whatever you need to do to win in the beginning. This probably means doing things that have an immediate term focus, not a longer-term developmental one.

For example, you might have a total stud hitter. You know that in the long run you need to have a more diverse offense, but you can win in the short-term by basically just setting that hitter all the time. So you do that, then start developing the rest of your hitters, your setter, and/or your offensive scheme.

The thought process here is that winning will help create the right kind of motivation and cultural environment.

Of course, it’s pretty easy to argue that your overall offense will get better faster if you start developing it right away. Also, what if you simply aren’t good enough to win no matter how much focus you can put on your strengths?

That’s something you’re going to have to think about with respect to your own situation.

The distribution

I think the outlined distribution of competitive level above is interesting. The idea is you use half your matches to see where you’re at and what you need to work on. You’re also fine-tuning your lineup, tactics, and things like that. You use most of the rest to work on developmental needs and to share out playing time against weaker competition. Then you mix in some tough matches where the players have nothing to lose.

What happens, though, if you’re at either end of the competitive spectrum? If your team is at or near the top, where do you find those “above” matches? On the flip side, if your team is at the bottom end, where to you find “below” matches? I guess some creativity is required in those cases.

Playing a tough schedule

I know some coaches and club directors have a “let’s play the toughest schedule we can” mentality. One argument for that is you’ll constantly be pushed to improve. In the juniors context in the US, it’s also a “being seen” recruiting argument.

There are some meaningful considerations involved in this sort of decision.

First, what’s the physical match-up. If you’re generally playing against teams who are of a similar physical make up as yours, I see no problem in playing regularly against better competition. Then it’s a question of skill, teamwork, etc. Those kinds of matches provide good learning opportunities. There is much less to gain, however, from clear physical mismatches.

Second, can you as the coach keep the players motivated and engaged? It’s not easy to lose all the time. That’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about a league competition or a weekend tournament. If after a while they’ve mentally checked-out, then the learning capacity is severely reduced.

Finally, you also have to consider the energy expenditure angle. It takes a lot of energy for a team to fight against one that’s better than them. If you do this over and over it takes a toll. Tired players not only don’t perform as well, and lack mental toughness, they don’t learn as much.

Can you win too much?

The opposite of playing a really tough schedule is playing a really weak one. This is in line with the “first you win” idea from above, but I think goes beyond that. Some coaches think regular winning is necessary to develop and sustain a winning mentality. They might have a point.

I have a couple of push-backs, though.

First, if all you’re doing is beating up on weaker teams, are you really getting better? That doesn’t strike me as an environment which encourages maximum development, especially if it leads to a closed mindset where fear of losing creeps in as a major motivational factor (which can definitely happen).

Second, I’m a firm believer in the need for teams and players to have to overcome adversity at some point along the way. I like it when my team gets knocked down, especially early in a season, so they can see what that’s like. This, to my mind, is a major developmental opportunity.

Also, how much of the need to win all the time is tied to the coach’s ego?

From my own experience

When I coached the Exeter teams in England we had the opportunity to play in competitions outside our normal university league (BUCS). There was the Student Cup, as well as local and regional leagues. BUCS was our priority. The others we used largely for development.

This was key. As I described in Anja’s story, the additional competition let us share the playing time, as well as work on developmental needs. You can also read about how I used these various matches during the 2013-14 season in my Coaching Log for that year.

In my college coaching I’ve always looked to schedule at least one really strong opponent in our pre-conference schedule. Think nationally ranked team. In some cases, like at Midwestern State, that was about gauging where we were because we consistently had Top-25 teams in our league. Elsewhere, it was more about giving the players a fun experience going against some of the best players in the country.

No matter what, though, going into any of these sorts of matches you need to have an objective in mind that isn’t necessarily related to winning. They are a developmental opportunity that must not go to waste.

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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.