I came across what I think is a very interesting coaching scenario. A fellow coach posted it in a Facebook group, looking for advice.

So i have coached volleyball for a couple of years and i was asked to take over a program in which the team has lost every game/match for the last 4 yrs. After going through my drills and figuring out and deprogramming all the bad habits the previous coached installed in them. My concern is if during the season how to keep the girls focused and avoid frustration and falling for the last bad habit their previous coach taught them which is to argue if we aren’t winning or won a game/match for a while. Any ideas?

I don’t know the prior coach, nor do I know the new coach, so will leave aside the whole “bad habits” discussion. It’s just not fair for me to comment on that. Instead, I will focus on the psychological aspect of things.

Four years without a single win means a team full of players with no history of on-court success. I can’t imagine the program psyche is in good shape after that. My first priority is to improve that situation – even before the technical work. I want to break that down into a couple different things, though.

Team Culture

The “team culture” concept can be kind of vague, so let me give you my definition. For me it is how you go about doing things. It’s the attitude and mentality you foster and nurture which underpin everything you do. As Sue Gozansky observes in the second Volleyball Coaching Wizards book, it’s the work you do every day, and the way you do it.

I wrote previously about the source of this culture. A lot of it, at least initially, will come from the players. The coach’s job is to move that to where they want it to be over time. Big changes are likely to be more possible in a situation like the one described here, where the players are looking for a change. This isn’t a guarantee, though. If you have a toxic existing culture it can be very hard to change. It may take significant player departures to get things shifted.

Be warned that you might see what you think is a cultural change early on when you take over a team like this. It’s a similar sort of situation to what I wrote about here. Everyone is excited for the fresh start. This is likely an illusion, however. The real test is what happens when the pressure is on and/or the results don’t go the way everyone wants. That’s where culture really shows, and that’s where the other part of my work comes in.

Confidence and trust

At the end of the day, you build a strong team culture on a foundation of trust. And trust comes in multiple forms. The two most notable are the trust between players and the trust between the players and the coach(es). I’m going to focus on the latter because it is at the root of everything you want to do. If you cannot develop and sustain it, you might as well pack it in because you won’t get anywhere with the team.

There are three ways you build the players’ trust. Demonstrating your knowledge is one, but it’s likely the least important. Developing an honest, supportive relationship with them is far more meaningful (“They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”). So too is giving them opportunities to succeed, which is where confidence comes in.

When I say opportunities to succeed I don’t necessarily meaning winning. There are a lot of other goals and objectives aside from that. And I’m not just talking about competitive-based things here. Developmental objectives are at least as important. Confidence comes from success, and also from progress.

The latter is the glue for the former

No team ever has a perfect season. They all have rough patches, often ones that can change the course of things. Work through them and the season will turn out positively. Fail to do so and things can spiral quite rapidly.

A team with no history of success is much more likely to go the second path than the first. That’s what we’re trying to avoid here. After all, it’s unlikely such a team goes from bottom to top. In fact, even getting to .500 could be a major challenge, depending on the competitive environment.

With a team that is so potentially fragile in its psychology, trust and confidence are incredibly important. They are the glue that keeps the still-developing team culture from blowing apart at the first indication of stress.

Start building those two things from Day 1, and keep working at it throughout the season, and you’ll have a contented team at year’s end. You still may not win a whole lot, but the players will at least feel likely they’ve had a positive experience and will have grown in the process.

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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.

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