Would you prefer great players or a great situation?

When I lived in England I had a conversation with one of my housemates (Maria) on the subject of the next step in my volleyball coaching journey. Maria asked a question along the lines of “Wouldn’t you just want to coach the best players possible?” It’s an interesting philosophical consideration that sometimes is a factor in the decisions we make regarding the teams we coach. My response to Maria was from two perspectives.

Coaches coach

I’ve related before a conversation I had with the captain of the first men’s team I coached in England. We were watching some high level NCAA women’s volleyball (Top 25 caliber teams). He asked how I could coach at the UK level after coaching Division I volleyball. My initial joking response was that while I’d coached against teams of the caliber we were watching, I hadn’t actually coached that level of team. Admittedly, that’s a difference without much distinction when making a comparison to the level of play in the UK.

My more serious response was to say “Coaches coach.” On the one hand what I meant by that was if you have the passion and drive to coach it probably doesn’t matter too much what level of player your working with. Admittedly, though, coaches do tend to specialize in some fashion. On the other hand, I was also trying to communicate the idea that the coaching process is largely the same for all levels. You identify the player’s and/or team’s developmental needs and work to help them get better. That’s the same whether you’re working with U12 beginners or the Brazilian national team.

It’s not just about on-court

It isn’t just your day-to-day work which determines your level of job satisfaction. Anyone who’s been part of an organization knows that. It is also your working conditions, your relationship with your peers, the support you get from those above you, etc. In fact, sometimes the work itself is only a minor factor in your happiness. This is something inexperienced coaches (and those in any other career) don’t fully understand. Those who have been around the block a few times know what a difference it can make, though.

A conversation I had with Ruben Wolochin, head coach at German Bundesliga side TV Bühl, relates to this subject. Long coaching tenures tend not to be the norm in professional sports. Ruben, though, told me that he could easily see himself remaining in his current position for long term. Why? Because he was happy with the lifestyle, his family situation, his relationship with the club, and those sorts of things.

Priorities and measuring success

Your own priorities and how you define success are major factors in how you think about things when it comes to whether you favor coaching great players or being in a great situation. Do you prioritize winning and measure success in terms of win/loss record and championships? Then you will be biased toward wanting to coach the best players possible. We all know that the team with the best players doesn’t always win. Having the best players does tend to help in that regard, though. From that perspective, you will want to be at the university where you can recruit the best athletes, the highest profile club volleyball program in the area, or the high school with the biggest population from which to draw.

If, however, you can be satisfied without winning loads of championships then you can look for a great situation for your personality, lifestyle, etc. While Ruben would love to win a championship one time, he realizes he’s at a smaller club without the financial resources to compete with the big clubs. That means championships will be hard, but there are still lower level objectives which can be aimed for, such as making the playoffs, earning a spot in CEV competition, and things like that.

As for me…

While I’m competitive in certain ways, I tend not to get overly caught up in winning and losing. Yes, I would rather be in upper half of the standings than the lower half. For me, however, coaching is more about forward progress. Are the players getting better? Is the team getting better? Is the club/program overall getting stronger?

I can get by without winning championships as long as things are moving in the right direction. My situation in Exeter reflected that. Volleyball was not a priority sport. We didn’t get the same level of support as many of the schools we competed against (up to and including scholarships in some cases). That meant we generally had to set our sights lower. We didn’t win any titles. We were able to do things Exeter volleyball hasn’t done in a long time, if ever, though. I’m quite satisfied with that.

If I go after a head coaching job in the States it likely will mean that I would be taking over a struggling program. The thing I would need to try to gauge in that kind of situation is what kind of influence I think I could have on making the program better within the context of the level of support and expectations there would be from the administration. Some programs are perpetual weak performers because they just don’t have the resources to compete and never will, while others perhaps just need a change in approach to start moving up the ladder.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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