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Platonov Book On Sale Now

Book Scans Cover Front Cover v2

During his lifetime, Vyacheslav Platonov wrote several books, mostly of the autobiographical / memoir type.  His last book, however, was intended to be a handbook for aspiring coaches and as such it contains much of the collected, practical coaching wisdom he accumulated during his many years at the highest level of international volleyball.  He specifically discusses developing your own style, building a team, the qualities of a successful coach, training and preparation, and coaching the game.

For the first time ever, this book is now available in English.  It is available in ePub format here, and as a hardcover book here.  There is also a facebook page. I believe this book is unique in volleyball and a vital addition to the professional library of every serious coach.

Bad Drills

Practice is the central activity of a coach’s work.  It is the time and place where the game and its elements are taught.  Therefore, the coach’s training methodology is key to defining him and his coaching.  Like everything else, there is are debates about training methodology.  The science of motor learning seems to be pretty clear that distributed practice and specificity are key ideas.  Likewise differential learning has scientific underpinnings.  Tradition also strongly influences training methodology, especially in countries with a long and successful volleyball history.

Drills are the central activity of practice.  Drills should follow the coach’s training methodology and be logically sequenced to optimise the benefits of each drill and practice as a whole.  All drills must have a purpose, both primary and secondary.  And they must make sense with regards to the skills and techniques of volleyball and the game itself.

Every so often one comes across drills that are more or less inexplicable, that don’t follow any logic or obvious training methodology.  In short, they don’t make sense.  Last week I came across two such drills.

The first is a very famous warm up drill.  The video is short and explains it well.  The first part of the explanation I am happy to get on board with.  Performing volleyball specific movements in the warm up makes sense.  Sadly, after that the logic gets very imaginative indeed.  Rhythm is absolutely essential in volleyball.  But rhythm in volleyball is not all players doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time nor is it some kind of call and response activity.  Rhythm in volleyball is all players responding to the ball and each other at the appropriate moment, acting in concert rather than in unison.  Seen in this way, the efficacy of the drill for volleyball is far more questionable.  When performed by a team, it is doubtless an impressive feat of discipline*, but so are displays by North Korean schoolchildren.  Neither make you better at playing volleyball.

The second drill can be seen here**.

To summarise, it is a normal set of volleyball, except at the end of each point the server runs back to position and serve as soon as they are ready.  This is one of those drills that seams like a reasonable idea until you think about it for 15 or 20 seconds.  Anything longer than that and you have to ask yourself some serious questions.  For example, ‘how is this related to the game of volleyball?’  In volleyball, there is only one activity that is totally under the control of the player and occurs in the complete absence of time pressure.  This drill serves (no pun intended) to add time stress to a situation in which none exists.  Ever.  By all means add extra balls to shorten the breaks between rallies, but NOT with a serve.  All that does is practice serving badly***.

Just because a drill is used by a famous coach does not mean it is a good drill.  Just because a drill is complex or difficult or imaginative does not mean it is a good drill****.  A good drill helps players get better at playing volleyball.  And these two drills do nothing to achieve that goal.  When watching a training or a drill on YouTube, it is important for all coaches to ask why any drill is being used, does it follow an obvious training methodology and is it part of the game.  If the answer is no to these questions, then it is not a good drill. It is a bad drill.

* …and makes the coach feels like he has achieved something.

** I could easily have chosen the second drill shown in the facebook post as an example.

*** I have actually seen this drill performed with the instruction to serve as fast as possible. The team would have been better served by playing soccer for practice. At least then they wouldn’t have practiced anything actively counter productive.

**** In fact the more complicated the drill was, the more I would question it.

How Much Is A Coach Worth?

A coach getting ready to instruct his team.

A coach making a difference?

Malcolm Blight is one of the most intriguing coaching figures in the world.  He is definitely the most intriguing coaching figure in the world who hardly anyone has ever heard about.  That is the problem when your sport is Australian football.  As a player he was renowned for his outrageous level of skill and willingness to use it in the most important moments.  As a coach he was renowned for his disdain for conventional wisdom and willingness to experiment at the biggest games.  As a commentator he is renowned for his individual analysis and willingness to view things from a different perspective.

He recently opined on the coaching legacy of one of the current top coaches.  As a whole it is an interesting discussion about the balance between sustained excellence and playoff success in defining such a legacy.  But the most interesting point for me, is when he suggests that:

“As a coach it is 80% about the team anyway. The rest of it, the club, the marketing department, the membership, the assistant coaches and the senior coach are the 20 per cent trying to help the 80 per cent be better. He is probably about five per cent … of the 20 per cent of the jigsaw.”

For clarification I am sure he meant five per cent of the 100%, not five percent of the 20 percent.  We’ll put that down to poor editing at the newspaper.  But is he really saying that the coach only influences five percent of the total performance?

It brings to mind legendary NBA executive Jerry West who is quoted as saying:

‘When you don’t have talent, coaching can only do so much. Once you have talent, coaching is everything.”

And Italian football coaching legend Giovanni Trapattoni, who is quoted as saying:

“A good coach who gets everything right can make a team maybe 5% better and a bad one can make it 30% worse. Sometimes more”

So how much is a coach worth to performance? Obviously I don’t know the answer. But I suspect it is less than most coaches like to imagine and more than most presidents like to admit.

Phil Jackson Is Insidious

of the Kentucky Wildcats during the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Rupp Arena on February 28, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky.

One of the great truisms of sport is that winners will always be copied.  When one coach ’empowers’ his players, everyone wants to.  When one coach plays with two receivers, everyone wants to.  When one coach plays the ‘West Coast Offence’, everyone wants to. It happens in every sport, at every level.  And successful coaches often have their coaching ‘trees’ of coaches who work them, learn their lessons, and become successful coaches in their own right.

Every so often there is a successful coach who is so unique that noone can successfully copy him, nor do his assistants achieve any notable success or longevity.  The most notable of those coaches is probably Phil Jackson.  His (or his assistant Tex Winter’s) Triangle Offence won 11 NBA titles under his direction, and exactly zero under any other coach.  The few of his assistants who became head coaches, had unremarkable (and short) careers.

I can’t think of a coach in any sport whose combination of personal philosophy, character and vision is so totally unreplicable.  Plus he wrote the most important coaching book ever, Sacred Hoops.

Today is his 70th birthday and there are numerous articles celebrating that and remembering him.  Among the articles are some interesting quotes and anecdotes that I has somehow missed, despite having read all of the books about him.

Some highlights from the articles:

“The soul of success is surrendering to what is.”

“One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.”

“I had to do some disciplinary things with Dennis Rodman, but we signed off on them. Dennis, I’m gonna fine you for being late, because he’s late every day. I went to the team and I said Dennis is gonna be late, I’m gonna fine him, but we can’t act out of sorts with this and become childish because we have to make allowances for his behavior… (The Lakers) has been so childish that they keep tabs on who gets more benefits, who has more discipline, those kind of things, and it’s tough because you can’t keep tabs.”

“Phil never missed a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle when he was coaching the Bulls and had fun with the English language. Once, he yelled at his team, ‘This is insidious,’ then followed that up with, ‘How many of you know what insidious means? I want you to go home and look it up and tell me tomorrow.'”

“Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something — anything — to solve problems. However, there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing.”

Three articles are linked here, here and here and here.

Karpol And The Old School

A coaching friend of mine who was a player in the 80s once commented to me that with current training methodologies we do one tenth the work we used to do… with double the effect.  In many things I have a great memory (often better than would be beneficial for me), but in some things, not so much.  For example, I can’t really remember what we did at training when we used to train eight hours in a day.  How did we fill that time?  We certainly weren’t playing volleyball.  This 1980 documentary on Russian coaching legend Nikolai Karpol jogs some memories.  In short, we used to do a lot of pointless individual work to exhaustion while the rest of the group stood around watching and collecting balls, and we used to do a lot of physical work that at the time we thought benefited volleyball, but in enlightened times understand doesn’t (ie ANY running, plyometrics).  And we did some of it outside, in the rain.

The documentary is a very nice time capsule of that period. It doesn’t have narration, except where Karpol’s voice is included, so it is eminently watchable even for non Russian speakers.  It shows Karpol being hard with his players, but without turning red in the face and screaming.  That apparently came later in his career.  It has some wonderfully poignant shots of the loneliness of being a player.  And whether deliberately or not, a player’s voice is never heard, perhaps implying that the players had no voice. Perhaps not.  Either way if you are interested in volleyball training or volleyball history then this is a good way to spend twenty minutes.

And if you like the documentary, you will love this book in English by Karpol’s contemporary, Vyacheslav Platonov.

Honour And Respect

One of the most common everyday challenges for a coach is his / her team playing at the level of the opponent. Against a better opponent it is rarely a problem, except that the coach often wistfully wishes the team always played like that. Against weaker teams it is a huge frustration, as ‘unnecessary’ sets or even matches are lost. To complicate matters further, in some places (mostly the United States) ethical pressures are placed on the coach to restrict the team’s performance so as not to risk ‘running up the score’ and therefore ‘disrespecting’ an opponent. In extreme cases coaches can be censured, suspended or even fired for winning by too much.

This is not a mindset that I can easily comprehend. As a competitor the most disrespected I have ever felt was when an opponent did not take my team seriously and therefore gave less than their best effort. Big losses never discouraged me, rather they inspired me to work harder, to work smarter, to get better. As a coach I have felt the disappointment from our opponents when they realised we would not be playing our strongest lineup in that match, and I understood their point of view. We were not taking them as seriously as they felt they deserved to be. These matches always make me much more nervous than any championship playoff.

Recently the topic has come up twice in a volleyball context. During a Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview, top Scottish coach Simon Loftus stated that “the best thing you can do to a team is beat them 25-0”. In other words, you don’t mess about, or ‘take the mickey, but play with as much concentration and focus as you would for a championship match (see below for the clip). At the currently being held FIVB Women’s World Cup in Japan, USA defeated Algeria by the set scores of 25-7, 25-2, 25-5. While such a score would lead to many of his colleagues fearing for his job, USA coach Karch Kiraly, as a player one of the greatest competitors of all time in any sport, put it in into perspective in the post match press conference.

“It doesn’t matter who’s across the net; we honour our opponents, we honour our sport, and we honour our programme and team. I like what we did today.”

I agree wholeheartedly.  Honour and respect means playing at the maximum of your ability.

World League Finals – Statistical Review – Part 2

Following on the ‘success’ of the World Championships Review articles, the author of the original, Michael Mattes and I decided to do something similar for the World League Finals.  In this case, he has provided the statistical analysis to which I will add my thoughts.  As an experiment, I have included links to interactive infograms at the end of each paragraph where you can have a look at some of the data in more detail.  I would welcome feedback on them.

Part 1 is here.

photo - FIVB.com


I sometimes hear that to win in volleyball you have to win the ‘serve – pass battle’.  In the broader sense that serving and reception are the foundation elements of the break point and sideout phases respectively, I could not agree more.  In the literal sense that you need to serve and receive better than your opponents, I am far less certain.  The figures from World League tend to back up my thoughts.  Winners France ranked 3rd in ace percentage, 4th in serve efficiency (aces – errors) and 3rd in reception efficiency (in system receptions – errors).  Bronze medallists USA on the other hand ranked 1st, 3rd and 2nd in the same categories.  Brazil’s poor finish (if you can call it that looking at the actual matches) could however easily be explained by rankings of 6th, 6th, and 5th.

Interestingly, there were two statistics in this area in which the French were the best.  They conceded the least number of aces and they had the best ace : aced ratio.  Given that they were by the far best at siding out out of system, not conceding aces seems to be a important component of their success.

WL FINALS – SERVE / RECEPTION | Create infographics


I consider this statement similar to the other statements I’ve quoted here.  It is an interesting guide and way of thinking about the game, but can’t be considered a hard and fast rule.  After all for the vast majority of the game, the object is to win points.  Back in the day, I did a very brief analysis of errors from the top 8 of the 2002 World Championships and found that the gold and silver medallists made the most errors, followed by the teams ranked 7th and 8th.  Like everything, error rate mustn’t necessarily be low, but in balance.  That is supported by the error rates from these World League finals.  The teams with the least number of errors per set were Serbia and Italy.  The highest error rate was from bronze medallist USA, while France was had the 3rd highest.  A low error rate does not necessarily lead to more success, at least not by itself.

WL FINALS – ERROR RATE | Create infographics


Looking through the rankings in the different skill areas it is not immediately clear why France won, even though watching the matches live I thought they were the best team.  They weren’t the best serving OR receiving team, although they had a positive balance in that area.  They weren’t the best spiking team, although they were great at scoring out of system.  They weren’t the best blocking team (in terms of percentage of opponent’s attacks blocked), in fact they were the worst.  They weren’t the best at minimising errors.  They were the best in point differential after 21, which seems like it should be important somehow.  They were the best at forcing the other teams into errors.  Although in neither area were they the best by so much that it would seem to be decisive.

My best guess is that they were the best at putting all the technical and tactical components together in a package that optimised their individual and group strengths.  And they had the best intangibles, which you could see even on TV.  Sadly we don’t have a useful stat for either of those things.

Maybe one day.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

Cover v2

World League Finals – Statistical Review – Part 1

Following up the ‘success’ of the World Championships Review articles, the author of the original, Michael Mattes and I decided to do something similar for the World League Finals.  In this case, he has provided the statistical analysis to which I will add my thoughts.  As an experiment, I have included links to interactive infograms at the end of each paragraph where you can have a look at some of the data in more detail.  I would welcome feedback on them.

photo - FIVB.com

photo – FIVB.com

Before I begin, I should note that due to the nature of the tournament, only 10 matches, none of the figures are useful in the true statistical sense.  But that will, of course, not stop me from making observations.  Furthermore, the tournament was a little unusual in that all the teams present won at least one match.  That will also have some effect on the values and how they could / should be interpreted.


Gold Medal Squared talk about the ‘2% Rule’.  This says a small improvement in the sideout percentage (the number of sideouts won as a percentage of the opponents serve), in this case 2%, will lead to a much greater chance of winning.  This is sometimes used as evidence that the sideout phase is where practice should be focused.  As sideouts and breakpoints are perfectly correlated, it must hold a 2% improvement in break point percentage (the percentage of points won on service) should also improve winning percentage by the same amount.  So in men’s volleyball, which is more important; sideout or break point?

It turns out that teams sideout at 67%, which is essentially the same as last year’s World Championships (67.6%).  Intuition, and the facts, tell us that break point percentage is therefore 33%. In both cases, four of the teams were above average, with Brazil the best siding out team, and USA, the best break point scoring team.  Champions France were second in both, good in sideout AND break point scoring.



In this tournament, it turns out neither.  It is a truism that spiking is the most important skill in volleyball and there is a lot of research that suggests that attack efficiency is the single statistic most correlated with winning.  As I noted above the small sample size means the statistics are not valid, but it is surprising that France were worse than all other teams, except last placed Italy, in kills, errors, blocks and efficiency.  It is clear you don’t need to be the best spiking to win, but surely you can’t get away with being the worst.  Maybe they are the best blocking team.

It turns out the best blocking team was Italy, with France again 5th, which supports some research that says blocking is irrelevant.  Breaking down attack percentages a little bit more, France was the best at one thing: out of system attack (when there is no first tempo available to the setter after reception).  In fact, they were better at attacking out of system than from good reception.  That may be a testament to their individual flair, or it may be a complete coincidence.

WL FINALS – ATTACK/BLOCK | Create infographics

Part 2 to follow