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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.

If you are living in or around Berlin, or somewhere Berlin Recycling Volleys is playing in the near future, you can buy the hardcover version directly from me. Just contact me via the facebook page.

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

SERVE – PASS BATTLE

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

YOU HAVE TO MINIMISE ERRORS

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

WHY DID FRANCE WIN?

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.

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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.

SIDEOUT OR POINT SCORING?

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.

WL FINALS – SIDEOUT / POINT PERCENTAGE | Create infographics

ATTACK – KILLS OR EFFICIENCY

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

Why I Love Volleyball

I could also have titled this ‘Volleyball in the 21st Century’.  This is a great example of the latest evolution of volleyball and why I think it is the most dynamic, spectacular and exciting sport in the world.

And one specific point… I have written often enough about how volleyball has changed in the last two or three years.  This rally contains nine net crosses and not one high ball.  As recently as 2012, at least one of the teams would have tried to slow the game by setting a high, high ball, which in all probability the spiker would have tipped short to position 1.  Now, they are always attacking, always looking for a place they can attack the block and defence.

Anyway, enjoy…

Technique – What If…?

Photo Courtesy of FIVB

Photo Courtesy of FIVB

I just recently watched video of a presentation that French National Team coach, Laurent Tillie, gave at the US High Performance Coaching Clinic.  In it he talks about the technique he uses with his players for service reception.  Very briefly, he talked about how the platform was important and more easily controlled if you allowed the player to bend his elbows.  He also said that to be in a stationary position at contact was unrealistic and described the movement that he used instead.  When he described it, it seemed reasonable enough although it is, shall we say, an unorthodox idea.  Karch Kiraly, coach of the USA women’s National Team, certainly thought so, as in a later session he made a point of saying he disagreed.

It occurred to me that there should be an easy way to find out which was better.  For all the talk of efficiency and biomechanics and repeatability, the object of service reception is the play a serve to the setter.  A better reception technique should get the ball to the setter more times than a less good technique.  We can measure that.  And in other skills as well.  A better spiking technique will produce measurably more power, or measurably better results.  And it occurred to me that while we endlessly debate technique, I have rarely heard someone** support their argument with actual evidence of results. I wondered ‘What if we ask for supporting evidence when we are discussing technique?’  Ultimately the goal of technique is to serve the game, to produce better results. What if we asked for those results?

For the record, at last year’s World Championships France were the best receiving team.

** An earlier version of this post said ‘never’.  Gold Medal Squared have evidence on receiving from the centreline versus left / right side of the body.

Setter’s Rules – Match

87 national champs003

Over the years, I have had the pleasure to work with many world class players including a number of setters of the highest level.  But for the mental, personal and team aspects of setting the best I have ever worked with remains to this day one with whom I played: Mark Tutton (bottom row, far right #5).  Tutts wasn’t very big even by the standards of the day and he was no technician, but he always, always won.  Not only did he always win, but he was the best teammate you could ever have and everybody loved playing with him.  I’m not sure which one of those things came first.  At some point, I decided that learning his secret would help me understand setters and how to help them.  So I called him and asked him how he played a game as a setter.  He began by telling me that he had no clue what he did.  And then told me exactly what he did.  Doing this won’t guarantee that you’ll win the match, but it will go a pretty long to it.

SETTING: ORGANISING A MATCH

By Mark Tutton

 PRIOR KNOWLEDGE

  • Know the personalities of the spikers and how they respond to certain situations, i.e. do they like a lot of the ball or a little or only in certain situations
  • Know the preferences of the spikers, i.e. what is the spiker’s favourite hit
  • Know that each spiker is best and worst at hitting, e.g. what can’t the spiker hit

BEFORE EACH MATCH

  • Determine the type of offence that will be most successful for a particular opponent, e.g. spread or tight offence

DURING THE WARM UP

  • Notice which spikers are looking sharp and work on building up the others
  • Identify who is the ‘hot’ hitter, i.e. who is hitting best right now

DURING THE MATCH

  • Keep all spikers involved in the match, giving more or less even distribution, talking into account PRIOR KNOWLEDGE
  • Set the previously identified ‘hot’ hitter 2 or 3 balls to everyone else’s 1
  • If the situations requires, set the best hitter or the hottest hitter whatever defence is presented and no matter how obvious it is
  • Continually encourage all spikers

Playing To Win

Coaching volleyball, or indeed any sport, for a living is tough.  It is not only the work that is difficult but it can become all consuming to the extent that it affects your personal and family life, and even your personality.  It can change your perspective (a loss is a disaster and a win is merely the postponement of the next disaster).  It can change your sense of humour* (if you have sensitive players who take everything personally).  It can change your sense of reality (an officiating error against you is proof of cheating, while one your favour is proof of your quality).  And it can absolutely affect your sense of irony.  As you can imagine, with no perspective, humour or sense of reality, there can be no irony.

Which brings us to the above video.  Although I certainly have my lapses, I think that I have done a reasonable job of avoiding the pitfalls described above.  The point in the video is from the bronze medal match from the 2015 CEV Champions League.  It shows my team (Berlin Recycling Volleys) create a great opportunity to win the match, and then make a ‘simple’, ‘unforced’ error.  My reaction is a rueful smile and a silent expletive.  The reason for the smile is at that exact moment of time I remembered a moment at training about a week before in which I implored my team (again) to always force the high ball set close to the net and further emphasised my point by saying ‘I would rather make one direct error and nine perfect sets than then ‘okay’ sets’.  I never thought those words would come back to bite us at quite that moment**.   Luckily my sense of irony has not yet been destroyed by my lack of perspective.

During the recent World League Finals tournament it became something of a bugbear of the commentator when teams made similar errors in setting high balls.  His mantra was that in those situations the player should always set the ball on the 10 feet from the net to be safe.  Fair enough, although it could have been the players were trying to set 10 feet from the net but didn’t know where that was.  But I digress.  My problem was that he did comment that the dozens and dozens of great sets were still not the safe option, just ‘luckily’ not errors.  On those occasions he always praised the attacker who made the point and simply didn’t mention the set or setter who made it possible.

There are two important points here.

Firstly, you must be absolutely consistent in your demands of the players.  If you demand aggression, you cannot fault errors that result from what you demand.  Conversely if you demand conservatism, you should fault aggression, even if it results in a successful action.

Secondly, the key concept that led to the errors that so annoyed the commentator was that the current generation of players / teams / coaches is playing to win.  Previous generations’ first instinct was conservative, to play not to lose.  Playing to win means searching for solutions that lead directly to points which in turn means that errors can occur.  Playing not to lose means searching for solutions that give your opponent the chance to make errors.  This leads to what I saw in the 2012 Olympics which was teams who often seemed to be playing ‘with’ each other in a kind of choreographed dance.  It can certainly be annoying at times to see a service error at set point or spike aimed at the top joint of the middle blockers finger land untouched in a spectators lap but those errors arise from exactly the kind of thinking that also leads to the countless successful actions that make modern volleyball such an astonishingly spectacular sport.  You can’t have one without the other.


*Doing anything in the absence of humour is, not surprisingly, an incredible painful experience.

**To keep perspective, we might have made five such errors over the course of the season and I am almost certain the player in question made only that one, including nine months worth of training and dozens of more difficult ones.

World League 2015 – Five Questions Answered

On Wednesday afternoon, before the first match of the World League Finals in Brazil, official FIVB commentator Paul Sunderland revealed that he was really looking forward to this event as best World League finals for years.  The reason? Teams took World League more seriously this year and played a lot more with their top players.  I agreed completely.  Sadly, it was one of the few moments over the ensuing five days that Paul and I agreed on something.  But that isn’t important.  What is important are the questions that were raised over those five days.  I will attempt to answer them.

Does this mean France the best team in the world? No. It does not. Most of the top teams played this tournament at their maximum and twelve months on from last year’s World Championships, all three medallists were different.  Every team in Brazil won at least one match.  Serbia lost to Italy who were in a massive state of upheaval, but went on to make the final.  France were one point away against the USA from not qualifying for the semifinals, but won the event.  Both semifinals went to five sets, with one team coming back from 0-2. What it means is that there are maybe nine (these six plus Russia, Germany, Iran, even Bulgaria) really good teams who can win against any of the other teams on a given day.  But the level is so close that none of those teams will win on every given day.  Basically in world volleyball we have the dream scenario for the NBA.

Does this mean France plays the best volleyball? This is obviously a personal preference but, yes. They do.  As a purist, I would prefer them to be a little better in block but their defence more than makes up for it.  They are fast, skilled and can improvise better than anyone when the moment requires it.  Brazil is not a long way behind and the opening night match between the two of them was about as good an advertisement for volleyball as we can get.  For quality the France – USA match was not far behind.  Overall the game is going through some changes. After the 2012 Olympics there was a huge generational change in world volleyball and the current generation of players (or the current generation of coaches?) are more flexible, more aggressive and less risk averse.  Players like Earvin N’Gapeth, Uros Kovacevic, Michal Kubiak, and even Lucas Saatkamp are looking for solutions to game situations in places that noone has looked before.  Over the last week we saw outside hitters hitting first tempo in transition, players attacking from the backrow on the second contact and middle blockers running slides in transition.  Non setters were prepared to be aggressive when playing the second ball.  Teams were playing to win.  Which, as we all know is completely different to playing not to lose.

Why are the teams so close to each other?

That is really a great question! I can come up with few possible reasons. I think one reason is due to the changing economics of volleyball at club level, which is too complicated to go into any further right now.  Other possibilities include the better players not all being born in the same place (i.e. an accident of history), the age profile of the teams leading to greater inconsistency (i.e. generational change), or more aggressive style of play leading to greater unpredictability in performance (i.e. evolution of the game).  Or it could be due to the absence of Cuba.  Although they would have a relative weakness at setter, their best group would be the most talented and might be dominant in this era.  Or it could just be that it is still a year out from the Olympics and teams still aren’t ready.  A lot can happen in the next twelve months.  Which segues neatly into question 4…

Who is the favourite for the Olympics? No clue.  Actually that is not true. Brazil is the favourite.  For one thing they are the only team who can count on qualifying.  For another the statistics from the World Championships review series that I posted last week, revealed something very interesting.  While every other team had clear strengths and weaknesses, Brazil was near the top in every single skill area. There are demonstrably the best team.  Over time.  Sadly / thankfully the winner of the Olympics is not the best team, it is the team that wins the final.  That makes a difference.  All of the top teams are capable of playing the level of volleyball required to an Olympic gold medal.  All of the top teams feature important players who are young.  They will all improve a lot of the next twelve months.  Everything after that is timing.

How excited are you for 2020?

With the exception of Murilo, all of the top players will not only still be playing in five years, but will be closer to their peaks.  So imagine the current evolution of the game, played by the players who ‘invented’ it, with the greater consistency that experience brings…

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Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

Cover v2