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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.

What Is Your Message?

Over the weekend I saw a video posted on a coaching page showing a coach’s reaction to a serving error by his team at match point.  As the, I’m guessing, 14 year old girl served into the net, the coach fell to the ground as if shot and lay there with outstretched arms.  The overall tone of the comments was lighthearted and coach involved justified his actions by saying that it was his way of releasing the pressure on his girls.  Given that they were leading 14-7 in the tie break at the time I am not sure exactly what pressure there was but I digress.

All coaches actions and words are messages he sends to his team and to others. By making such a scene the coach is sending one overriding message.

“It is not MY fault.”

Coaches who jump up and down on the sideline and yell at referees and players and even fall over for effect are simply trying to send the message that it is not their fault.

‘I didn’t tell the player to do that.’

‘If the player did what I said we would have won that point.’

‘We won the point but the referee took it away from us.’

And countless variations on the same theme.

What message are you sending?

Inspiring Juniors And Loving Volleyball

When I was just a lad, and before it was even remotely fashionable, I loved soccer and lapped up everything I could on the subject. So when ‘Escape to Victory‘ came out, starring Sylvester Stallone no less, I rushed off to the cinema to see it.  Among the many action packed and exciting scenes in the movie, (I have never seen it again, so in my mind it remains the great movie my 14 year old self loved) was this one starring Argentinian player Osvaldo Ardiles.

I can’t really describe how inspiring this scene and the trick was.  Along with all of my friends, I rushed off to the playground and endlessly tried to replicate it.  Our lack of success didn’t deter us because we were having fun and learning something new that we had never seen before.  And we loved soccer a little bit more.  As is very often the case, the imagination to invent a new move, or technique is harder than the technique itself.  Once something is conceived as possible, it quickly becomes normal and eventually easy.  35 years later every one of my current volleyball players can do that trick, most of them much better than Ardiles himself.  It turns out it is not actually that difficult.  But thinking of it was.

Last week France won the European Volleyball Championships for the first time.  The final point was scored by French star Earvin N’Gapeth in this manner…

Volleyball fans all over the world went wild and the video went viral.  As it should have.  The sobering note was sounded by a reader of my Facebook page who cautioned ‘… just don’t let my U17s see it.’  As a coach I instantly understood his point.  I have heard and said many similar things over the years about coaches who don’t want their players to see such and such a team or player so they don’t learn ‘bad’ habits and undo all of the coach’s work in teaching volleyball ‘properly’.

But after a moment or two, I started to think about it in another way.  Maybe the best solution would be to provide some time in practice for the players to try that move.  For that ten, fifteen, twenty minutes you can guarantee that the players will be fully committed and engaged. They might not able to master what N’Gapeth did, but mabye they will find something else new and they will probably understand more about their bodies.

But one thing is certain, they will definitely love volleyball a little bit more than they did yesterday.

I almost did it with my guys… ;-)


Coach’s Books And Great Coaches

One of my favourite things I am doing now is the Volleyball Coaching Wizards project, in which my partner John Forman and I interview great volleyball coaches with the view to share their insights with other coaches.  So far the project has been enormously fun and rewarding.  One of the highlights was a recently recorded (and soon to be released) interview with Swedish coaching legend, Anders Kristiansson.  At some point in the interview I suggested that he should write a book. He laughed and quoted his friend Julio Velasco, who apparently said…

“If a coach has written a book he is not a good coach.  A good coach is thinking only about his next practice.”

I of course laughed at appropriate moment, noted the irony out loud, and silently put my own book plans on hold.  I have written before the coach’s books should be taken with a pinch of salt anyway, but this got me thinking a little bit more.

As so often happens in these cases, shortly after the conversation I came across documentaries about two of the great current American coaches.  As it happens those two coaches, Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick, are virtually unanimously considered to be the best coach in the NBA and NFL respectively.  Neither has written a book.  Neither has an identifiable slogan or method that they have trademarked and marketed.  For that reason, I think both documentaries are especially valuable, not least because they contain first person interviews.  I embed them here without further comment.

Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs

Note: The title says 1/6, but it automatically plays all six.

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots

Note: The embedded video may not play, but the original on YouTube will.

What If? 1984 Olympics Edition

If volleyball had a journalist or written tradition, one of the great debate topics would revolve around the 1984 Olympic Men’s Volleyball tournament.  The United States were the great emerging team, playing at home, with a group, the core of which would largely dominate world volleyball between 1986 and 1988.  The Soviet Union, had dominated world volleyball since 1977 with a great team of champions very close to their peak.  One great team just before its peak against one great team just after its peak.

The first ‘what if?’ is who would have won the 1984 Olympics if the Soviet Union had not boycotted.  The 1985 World Cup suggests that it would have been exceptionally close and hints, to me at least, that one year earlier with the Soviets closer to their peak and USA further from theirs, the Soviets would have been favourites.

The second ‘what if?’ is whether the system of specialisation developed by the US would have become so widespread, so fast if they had not won the gold medal. This ‘what if?’ is clearer.  I think specialisation would have become just as widespread, although maybe taken a little longer to become standard practice.

There is another hint at what the outcome might have been in a match played later in 1984 at the Japan Cup.  Highlights have just popped up on YouTube.  The match was won in five sets by the Soviet Union.  The ‘what ifs?’ remain.

To quote the comment in Russian on the video…

“This “Japanese Cup” in November 1984. It was conducted among male teams 8 countries – the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, the USA, South Korea, Poland, Mexico, Japan, China. The Soviet Union in the year boycotted the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in response to the boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, so the US volleyball team took first place in the summer of 1984. And Japan Cup team of the USSR proved that in fact it is still the strongest in the world.”

To quote Doug Beal from his book, ‘Spike!‘…

“The USA goes to this tournament and answers the critics of the boycotting countries.  We crush Poland and Bulgaria, lost a tight match to the USSR, and along with the Soviets dominate the field.  (We are, of course, without half of our Olympic team***).”

What if?…

*** Timmons was injured and Dvorak doesn’t seem to play.  The Soviet Union on the other hand are missing Chkourikhin, Pantchenko and Antonov.

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.