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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.

When Breaking Rules Is Good

All (good) coaches have a set of rules they use to simplify and clarify game situations for their teams.  Which player should play the first ball and in which situations.  Which player should play the second ball and in which situations.  The best solutions for high ball attacks.  When to block with a double and triple block.  You get the idea.  If you are reading this blog, you are a good coach, so you probably have some more that I haven’t even written.

Most coaches have rules regarding giving free balls to the opponent.  Incredibly, not all coaches do and even today watching the World Olympic Qualifying Tournament I was stunned to see free balls played mindlessly into the middle of the opponent’s court.  But I digress.  The most common free ball rule is to play the ball short to position 2/1.  Obviously, this reason is to either make the setter play the first ball, or draw the opposite out of position to take it.  All teams are ready for that and have tactics to solve this problem.

So if good coaches have rules of play, AND solutions to those rules then REALLY a good coach has to relax those rules.  Up to a certain level increased structure improves the level of play.  Beyond a certain level decreased structure increases the level of play.  Example number one is any number of things that France does.  Example number two is this play from Canada’s TJ Sanders.  Watch the play, see how it unfolds, play the ball.


Earvin N’Gapeth – Master Of The Simple

Earvin N’Gapeth has rightly become an internet sensation (or at least as sensational as a volleyballer can become) for his spectacular actions.  The most famous one is when he is the backrow he fakes attacking the second contact and instead sets to an outside spiker.  For example, this action.

This is just one of the many great actions in all phases of the game.  So I was excited to get the chance to watch him (and all his French teammates) at the European Olympic Qualification Tournament in Berlin in January.  I don’t know exactly what my expectations were, but what I saw really surprised me.  On video it looks like he chooses particular solutions to be spectacular or high risk.  Live in the stadium, in looks different.  To see the game in context, i.e. the whole court and all the players simultaneous, the solutions he chose were actually obvious and simple and only minimally risky.  He never spiked a ball for the sake of spiking it or that he wasn’t in position for.  But importantly he never set on the second contact just because the convention dictates it.  Simply, if the ball was on his approach he hit it, or was prepared to hit it.  If not, he did something else.

There is nowhere in volleyball rules that say how the game should be played, or how many contacts you must use.  It only says you may not use more than three.  The convention of always using three contacts is exactly that – a convention.  Admittedly it is a widely accepted convention and every coach and player risks ridicule or worse by not following it.  But ultimately conventions are not rules.  The greatest risk N’Gapeth is taking is not following conventional wisdom.  On the court, he is just doing is the simplest thing possible.

Here are some highlights from said European Olympic Qualification Tournament.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.Cover v2

How To Play Volleyball : By Soundgarden

I have long held the belief that there are parallels between playing music in a band and playing volleyball in a team (and I have written about it here and here).  Musicians often speak of the feeling of unity they can sometimes achieve, often when playing with particular musicians.  While I am not a musician, the description matches some playing and coaching experiences I have had and seems to mirror many of the concepts that Phil Jackson writes about.  Yesterday I came across this quote from Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd.

“When playing music, listening is more important than actually playing. When the band communicates we’re actually all listening to each other and then applying it when we play.”

There are two things that instantly jump out at me. The first is the idea of ‘listening’ to his band members.  This parallels being aware of the movements and actions of teammates, that obviously goes beyond the basic team structure and organisation.  A player who is ‘listening’ to his teammate is aware of the movements and the positions the player reaches as he responds to each game situation.  If you have ‘listened’ to your teammate you know where he is and in what timing and  you can play with him beyond the basic structure.  This is evidently mostly in transition situations where positions are less predictable.  When I think about this idea, I imagine the French team playing volleyball.

The second point that jumps out at me is how he uses the word ‘communicates’.  He is not talking about words that are spoken in the group.  Communication is two sided, and in this usage Shepherd is emphasising that communication is both how you listen AND how you then react.  And only when you can do both at a high level can you reach the very highest level of group (team) play.

As always, the lesson is that high volleyball is not technical.  It is about the level of interaction within a group.

Here is Soundgarden… and France.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.Cover v2

Coach’s Hat Trick

vid challengeIn 1858 an English cricketer took three wickets with consecutive deliveries.  The spectators were so excited by his feat that they took a collection with which they purchased a hat that they presented to him as a token of their appreciation.  Over time, whenever a cricketer took three wickets with consecutive balls it became known as a hat trick.  The term has since been borrowed by other sports, always to denote something done in threes.  My personal favourite kind of hat trick is the ‘Gordie Howe Hat Trick’.  This is named after the Canadian ice hockey player and is used to describe a match in which the ‘recipient’ scores a goal, records an assist, and gets into a fight.

As we all know, the coach’s work in volleyball is judged purely by how he uses his interventions (timeouts and substitutions).  I am on record as advising young coaches to always use all their timeouts and substitutions.  That way they can prove they did everything they possibly could to win the game and everything after that is the fault of the players.  In some professional leagues the coach can also directly impact the game by asking for video review (or using the video challenge).  This is very often used by the coach as a quasi timeout, which explains why even the most successful coach in the Polish League wins only 39% of his challenges*.  Which got me thinking…

So, inspired by Gordie Howe, I came up with a new kind of hat trick.

The Coach’s Hat Trick 

A Coach’s Hat Trick is achieved when a coach, in the course of a single set, uses both his timeouts, all six substitutions AND twice challenges unsuccessfully.  I can tell you from experience that this is not as easy as it sounds.  Without going back and checking I am pretty sure that I twice got to within one challenge of a Coach’s Hat Trick.  The hardest is definitely the the video challenge part of it.  There are surprisingly few opportunities where a challenge is actually warranted, and not many more that are even close enough for a ‘challenge timeout’.  I distinctly remember two occasions in which we were losing the set by a long way and I was searching for any delay of the game and was sitting with my finger on the button of that second challenge.  But all in vain.

I hereby vow that next season I will do my utmost to finally achieve my now several hour long held goal of achieving the Coach’s Hat Trick.  I will keep you posted.

* Another explanation would be that officials are actually pretty good at doing their job.  Or at least better than they are often given credit for.  But we all know that is not true.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.Cover v2

Is Kobe Really Competitive?

In another period of my coaching career, there were many sports scientists attached to our program.  One was particularly attached to the team.  He was smart and hard working and personally close to some of the players through one of his other roles.  One day, out of the blue, he quit working with our team.  The reason that he gave was a disagreement over training programs with another of our service providers.  We were of course disappointed, but as is the way of things we moved on with his replacement.  Some time later, under the influence of alcohol, he cornered me at a function and among other things demanded to know why we had let him go, as he “… would have done anything for the team.”  My reply was that obviously he wouldn’t have done anything for the team, otherwise he would have found a way to work with his colleague for everyone’s benefit.  Nothing in the ensuing years has made me change my opinion.

I have been reminded of that conversation by Kobe Bryant many times in the last few months.  As he closed in on his retirement, there were many stories about his legendary obsessiveness and commitment and ‘competitiveness’.  Reading through the litany of compliments one phrase would invariably wander through my mind.  ‘Yeah, he would do anything to win… except work with his teammates.’  This may seem somewhat churlish of me given his success but it somehow seems important.  Basketball, like volleyball, is a team game, the ultimate expression of which is the combination of different parts in order to reach a level greater than the sum of those parts.  While Kobe clearly possesses many highly desirable qualities, to deliberately ignore the fact that he apologetically wears his selfishness as a badge of honour is to ignore a vital part of his story and sells the game short.

This touches on the broader point of competitiveness and what competitiveness actually is.  Noone would ever suggest that Kobe is not competitive.  But to be competitive implies an overarching desire to win.  But his actions do not actually support that thesis.  One comment that I was once told may help clear up the discrepancy

“It is not enough for me to win.  Winning by itself is not interesting.  I want to be the reason that we win.”

And there is the difference.  I have met many people over the years who would say and have said that they were highly competitive.  But I would argue that I have actually met very, very few people who are actually competitive, people who would really do anything to win.  If you are prepared to do anything to win, you will work with others and you won’t take credit.  I don’t think Kobe passes that test.

End Of An Era

© Picture-Alliance

© Picture-Alliance

In every field of human endeavour there are those who stand out among their peers.  In my profession an exceptional body of work is normally related to winning.  Among volleyball coaches one of the most exceptional bodies of work belongs to Rumanian born German coach Stelian Moculescu.  Over a 40 year coaching career in the German Bundesliga he won 18 championships, 19 cups and the CEV Champions League.  For a large part of his career he was also coach of the German National Team, who he led to Olympic Qualification for the first time in history in 2008.

He was a controversial figure for his entire career, up to and including his last match.  Every story of the Bundesliga in his time was about him in some way.  He was a ferocious competitor, putting him at odds with many along the way.  He was a great coach.  The teams he had in Friedrichshafen in 2009 and 2010 were a perfect blend of control and aggression.  I have tried to adapt that philosophy in every team I have had since then.  I stood on the other side of the net from him nearly 40 times in my career.  I came out of it a bit worse than even.  I did better than most.

On sunday in Berlin was his last match on the sidelines.  His team lost, but Berlin (club and fans) represented volleyball.  For these three minutes, volleyball celebrated one of its greatest figures.



A New Poll About Timeouts

I have a new Twitter poll on the perceived effectiveness of timeouts. I would love to hear your thoughts.