Here’s an interesting question from a Facebook group for head coaches working with new assistants.

For those of you who get an assistant coach who maybe understands how to play volleyball, but doesn’t understand the intricacies of how to coach it, what do you do to help THEM learn how to coach. How do you utilize them?

The poster went on to add, “He doesn’t know the lingo, the specific drills we run, etc.” to provide further context. So clearly it isn’t someone who played for this particular coach. That means there’s a lot to learn in terms of specifics on top of more general concepts. Let me share how I’d approach things.

General expectations

This goes for all assistants, not just those without a coaching background. Start by laying out the expectations and how you do things. Be very straightforward about this. Answer any and all questions you can. You won’t cover every possible thing that could come up, of course, but make sure you hit all all the big stuff. Think of it as a reference point for the “Remember when I said…” conversations that might have to happen down the line.

Explain your plan before practice

A great way to get someone trained up as an assistant is to walk them through the plan for your practice. This is where they can learn terminology, the drills you use, etc. Explain why you’re doing things and their role in each activity. Don’t expect them to retain it all right away, though. Just like with the players, it can take a new assistant going through a drill or a game to really understand how it works and what they’re supposed to do.

Keep their focus narrow

Over time you’ll figure out the best ways to make use of an assistant based on their strengths, interests, etc. In the early stages as they are learning, though, make sure you focus them fairly narrowly. That gives them the opportunity to get stuff right while also taking in the bigger picture.

Encourage questions

Make it a rule that if there’s any doubt at all, they should ask you. The last thing you want is to have to stop them doing something because they didn’t understand and are doing it incorrectly. That means you have to be open to questions. Obviously, there are times when questions are a distraction you don’t want. Make sure they know when those times are, but otherwise be open to them.

Lots of feedback

Just like you want to give your players feedback as part of their development, make sure you do that with your new assistant. This is probably not something you want to do in front of the team (definitely not if it’s negative!), so do it away from them. Tell them the things you want them to keep doing, and tell them the stuff you want them not to do anymore. In the latter case, make sure to tell them what you want instead.

Use debriefs

A great time to give feedback and to answer questions is in a debrief session after practice or a match. Having seen how things went, they’re in a better position to better understand and know what questions to ask. You can also use the time to talk about what you see for the next session. That way they can get a better sense of your thinking and your perspective on things.

Give them resources

If there’s anything specific you want them to learn, point them toward resources so they can do some homework. There are loads of articles, books, and videos you can share. You might even already have stuff you give to the team covering things like serve receive patterns by rotation, defensive systems, and set calls to get them going on those subjects.

Be patient

The last thing I would say is to be patient in their learning process. You can’t expect them to get everything right away. And you definitely can’t expect them to know what you’re thinking or how you want things done if you don’t explain it. They are there to help you, and by extension your team. Keep them motivated to continue learning. Play to their strengths, and as they demonstrate competency, expand their role.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Assistant Volleyball Coach at Radford University, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His previous 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. Learn more on his bio page.

    3 replies to "Turning a player into an assistant coach"

    • KELLY DANIELS

      One of the best articles you’ve published. I say this because I started out as a club head coach. The following year I was a collegiate assistant coach. I learned nothing other than HC couldn’t relate to the team as her philosophy was 20+ years old. She thought after she saw the team connection with me I was trying to take her job. Even though she knew I was only in my 2nd year of coaching.
      I had to lean on my experience as a junior USMC drill instructor how.to.be an assistant coach. Today I still use the same Jr DI techniques; Be patient, support leader(s), ask if you don’t know, and be open to feedback good and bad.

    • Lenny Barry

      Hey John
      Interesting and stimulating as always…

      Question. Things in US are very different to here in the UK, as you experienced during your tssime in Exeter.

      So, the example here is someone volunteering to help and, it seems they have little volleyball knowledge?

      What is the general rule of thumb in terms of recruiting / acquiring Assistants (generalists) and Assistant Coaches?

      Is it ex players coming in to help out with numbers at practice? People helping with organisation and logistics eg ball retrieving, ensuring towels and water availability, gym management. And ultimately capable, competent and qualified Assistant Coaches?

      How does college / club locate, identify, interview, trial, appoint, develop all of these categories of “assistance”?

      Best regards

      Lenny Barry

      • John Forman

        Lenny – First, a clarification of terminology. In the U.S. when someone uses the work “assistant” in the context of school sports they are most likely referring to an assistant coach. What you refer to as a generalist for us is usually called a “manager”.

        Here the obvious focus is assistant coach – someone meant to help out with coaching duties as opposed to just administrative/logistical/organizational ones. That could be either a volunteer or paid position. It wasn’t clear in the scenario described. Nor was it clear whether it was for a school or a club team. You very often see former players (event still active ones, as in the case of college players helping out with club teams) as entry level assistant coaches.

        As for the subject of finding such folks, that’s too big a topic for a simple comment reply. 🙂

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