Training With The Starters

One of the key concepts of volleyball, or of any team sport, is that the more any combination of players play together, the better they play together.  It is a pretty obviously, logical statement and it stands up as true time and time again.  Knowing that, many (most) coaches in team sports will try to make as few changes as possible in their starting line up, firstly to create and secondly, to take advantage of this group understanding.  A smaller group of coaches take this concept to the extreme by focussing all, or most, or their training time on working with the starters.  It is logical that training the starters is the best way to develop a group of starters.  But is this really the best way to develop a team?

My answer would be emphatic, no!  The first point is that maximising the training opportunities for half of the team, will minimise the training opportunities of the other half of the team.  This has several negatives for the development of the team.

Firstly, there are many things that can happen over the course of a season, especially injuries.  If players from the second six never get the chance to play with the normal starters they cannot be expected to play at a high level if you ever need them.

Secondly, the motivation of players who never play with the starters in practice is always less.  It doesn’t matter how much the coach pushes, or how professional or intrinsically motivated the players are, at some point they will not bring the same the level of intensity to practice as the starters, which will negatively impact the level of practice.

Thirdly, if the coach deliberately creates two groups in practice, he cannot reasonably expect to see a unified team off the court or during matches.  If the coach preaches a team mentality but doesn’t act on it during practice he will never be able to create a team.

Everything a coach does is a tradeoff.  If I split my team into starters and non starters, then I can expect my starters to play better together, but I sacrifice a smooth transition in case of injury, and hinder the building of the team.   If I continually mix my team in practice, my ‘starters’ will take longer to develop an optimal group understanding and performance.  But others will be ready to peform at their best if needed, and the team unity and training level will stay high.

I have always been a coach that likes to build a team.


Teaching Resilience

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Resilience is one of those mythical qualities that is highly sought after for high performance athletes in all sports.  You can often hear coaches talk about the resilience, or lack therefore, of their teams, and about steps they are taking to develop in their teams.

I certainly agree that resilience is highly desirable. There are innumerable situations during the course of a practice / week / match / season which create disappointments both small and large for individual players and teams.  How resilient those players and teams are to those disappointments is an important factor in quality of the team.

So how to develop that resilience?  It was suggested to me recently that coach’s anger (yelling, screaming etc) during practice specifically creates the conditions that allow resilience to develop.

So this is the question… are coaches who resist displays of anger during their work actually doing their players a disservice?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

How Much To Share?

“I give them (anyone who asks) my training methods and programmes but I don’t give them my brain.” Jose Mourinho, Up Close and Personal p110

Every coach will some longevity is asked for advice by other coaches.  Many coaches are asked to present at clinics and workshops.  The response from coaches varies.  Many coaches will happily share their time and experience… up to a point.  After all they don’t want to share their secrets with possible competitors who could some day beat them.  Some coaches don’t share anything at all.  I heard one notable coach say that he had spent a lot of money and time collecting his knowledge, why should he share it with others for free. Some of those simply think they have the secret.  One coach I worked with actually banned me from watching parts of his practices.  Although I suspect the real reason was because he realised I knew his ‘secret’ was just a con.

Then there are others, like Jose Mourinho*, who happily share everything.  Their logic is simple.  They can share all of the mechanics of what they do, but the mechanics, while interesting are not the keys.  If another coach took all of Mourinho’s coaching methods and programmes and carried them out exactly as written, the results would not, could not, be the same. Those coaches understand that the most important things are the connections between things, the spaces between the notes so to speak.  Those coaches also have nothing to fear, because as Mourinho goes on to say, the great coaches are always fiddling and adapting with their programmes to continue to improve.

How much do you share?

*I would like to think I fall into this category, but suspect I am more often the coach who holds something back.  Feel free to challenge me on it.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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More On Coaching Interventions

The most common misconception about coaching is that the work of the coach is in the stuff he ‘does’ and most specifically the stuff he ‘does’ that other people see. So coaches are judged on the number of timeouts they take in a game because that is what people recognise as ‘coaching’. They are judged on the things they shout at the players in practice or games, because that is what people recognise as coaching.  They are judged on the amount of feedback they give in practice because that is what people recognise as coaching.

I have written before about coaching and these interventions. Simply, coaching is not in the interventions.  This short YouTube addresses the difference between what happens when the coach relies on interventions in practice and when the coach relies on other methods.  It is a great way to spend two and a half minutes if you are a coach. Or a parent for that matter.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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What Actually Drives Performance Improvement?

Statement 1 – In the last thirty years the understanding of techniques and tactics and training methods has improved enormously, leading to the increased performance we see today.

Statement 2 – In the last thirty years equipment and technology have improved enormously, leading to the increased performance we see today.

If asked I am reasonably certain that everybody involved in sport would agree with both of those statements with the proportion attributed to each variable due to the particular sport that person is most involved in.

A Canadian science show recently did a piece investigating and trying to isolate the effect of technology on performance in a few individual events.  The show can be seen here.  The basic premise of the show was to give current performers the conditions of their predecessors and see how they perform.  The most interesting one was the world championship 100m sprint bronze medallist who was given similar conditions as Jesse Owens.  Running on a cinder track, with leather shoes and no starting blocks, he ran 0.7 seconds slower than Owens.  There are of course other contributing factors (including habituation to the conditions and absence of competition) but it is a stunning point.  The athletes in other disciplines showed similar, if less stark results.  These results suggest a ‘what if?’.  With all of the increases in training knowledge, technical knowledge and pharmaceutical assistance, what if the majority of improvement in performance can be attributed to improved equipment?

Yesterday, I posted about the psychology of improved performance.  Athletes perform relative to their expectations of performance.  Perhaps they model their performance somehow on previous performance, their own and others.  As an experienced coach, this makes some intuitive sense.  I could also name specific examples from my own personal experience and from history when the performance of a team has improved simply because a new coach brought with him higher expectations.

Putting those two threads together if you consider training, equipment and psychology, could it possibly be that training, training methodology, technique, tactics, scouting, (drugs) are actually the least important component of our programs?  At the very least, the above evidence seems to suggest that we may be overvaluing their importance.

Yeah, But…

Every coach recognises those words as the moment a player begins making an excuse for not doing whatever he or she was supposed to do.  A book with the collected excuses of players with that title would doubtless be a best seller as coaches would snap them up at a pretty decent rate, either for their own enjoyment or as amusing gifts for coaching colleagues.  However, despite what coaches would have you believe, it is not only players who come up with imaginative excuses.  I Taught My Dog To WhistleAs the cartoon above shows, coaches are just as prone as athletes to make excuses for their failings.  In fact you can open the sports pages on nearly any day and get a Coaching 101 lesson in excuses from the coaches who lost yesterday.   For example, every time a coach talks about the officiating.  Julio Velasco often talks about more serious excuses that coaches make.  One of his favourites is blaming the psychological failings of a player / team for coach’s lack of success, as I quoted about here, rather than seriously analysing their own work.  In the video clip, he talks (apparently, it is in Spanish) on a similar theme, of coaches blaming a player’s lack of talent for the lack of success.


The most popular current excuse for coaches is athlete ‘entitlement’.  You can read the complaint often on internet coaching pages and one well known basketball coach quoted ‘entitlement’ as part of the reason for her retirement.  The reason I use the inverted commas there is to emphasise that those are not my own thoughts.  Obviously, society has changed (as it always does) and with it so have athlete’s expectations of the coach / athlete relationship (as it always does)*.  But when reading those posts, it is impossible not to see that many of the posters are looking for excuses instead of honestly reviewing their own contributions.

How many times have you heard a coach or player say something along the lines of ‘The guys were fully committed today and that is all I can ask of them.’  As famous football coach Guus Hiddink says**.

“…commitment (is) also a little bit of an excuse.  When you have 100%, whatever happens in the game, we are happy.  I said ‘No, that’s not enough for me.  Let’s go and try to make the commitment more balanced to technical behaviour, strategy.”

Excuses are everywhere.  Ultimately there are two possibilities in any endeavour: you either succeeded or you didn’t succeed.  And if you didn’t succeed there is a very high probability that the reason was something that YOU did.  Those who search for that reason, and not for excuses, and seek constant improvement, are invariably the ones who eventually do succeed.

* I used to be a player.  The way I remember the ‘good old days’ is of what we had to put up with from our coaches.  Some in particular coached in a way that would now, rightly, be considered child abuse.  Instead of complaining about how players are now, we should be ashamed that we didn’t speak up about the things we were forced to do.

** in the excellent book ‘That Night’ about his work with the Australian football team in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

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.


There Is No One Answer!!

I have written several times over the years about the 10,000 Hour Rule.  While I understand that this is not in fact a ‘rule’, it has always been an intriguing idea for one reason.  Explicit in the ‘rule’ is the importance of practice.  And not just any practice, deliberate practice which has the specific goal of improving performance.  This is the most powerful, and more or less only, takeaway.

Since it was first popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, the ‘rule’ has been often used to prove that talent does not exist. For example by Daniel Coyle and Matthew Syed.  The suggestion that talent does not exist is an intoxicating one, particularly for coaches who can tell their athletes that hard work is the sole determinant of success and everyone has an equal chance, and thereby increasing their own importance in the process.  They continue to maintain this stance despite the fact that it is patently ridiculous.

With that background, I read a blog post that quoted studies digging deeper into the importance and effectiveness of training.  The researchers quoted a figure of 18%.  That is practice accounted for 18% of variance in sports performance.  For the non maths experts, 18% is less 100%.

“Our conclusion is that, of course, deliberate practice is an important factor, but it’s not the only factor or even the largest factor,”

Shockingly, the author of the study on which all of this is based, K. Anders Ericsson, disagrees with that conclusion*, pointing out all sorts of flaws in interpretation and method.

To rub salt into the wounds,

“…it’s time to get beyond the idea that talent is either “born” (genetic) or “made” (all about practice). Instead they propose what they call a “multifactorial” model. It features arrows going all over the place in an effort to capture how factors like basic ability, personality, and deliberate practice affect each other and the overall development of talent.”

It is incredibly attractive to think that for every situation there is only one answer.  It allows us to simplify the world into patterns we can more easily understand.  Coaches love to think that there is a best technique or method and applying it will inevitably lead to success.  Attractive as it is, this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t take into account reality.  There are so many factors involved that trying to identify a single answer can only ever lead to superficial thinking.

There is NEVER only one answer.

*Presumably Gladwell, Coyle and Syed also disagree.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Players Know Best?

I met Terry Liskeyvich more than 20 years while he was still coach of the US women’s National Team and visited Australia for a clinic.  Over the next five or six years he was a semi regular visitor to Australia in a variety of capacities and I had the opportunity to spend some time talking with him on a variety of topics.  From those conversations, the single biggest thing that stands out to me to this day is the book he described as the most important book he read in his coaching life.

The book is ‘The Fifth Down‘ and is written by Neil Amdur and is the ostensibly the story of a high school football coach named George Davis who had a particular way of running his team.  A very particular way in fact.  He ran his team as a democracy, allowing players to decide on many aspects of how the team was run, including voting for the starting lineup each week.  This is the part that has been sitting in the back of my mind for over twenty years now.  The rationale for having the team decide on the starting lineup is simple.  Davis maintained that the players themselves are in the best position to know exactly how much effort their peers are investing in the team and in training.   Therefore they know better than the coach who is playing well right now and who will put the team in the best position to win the next game.

While I am certain that coaches do not always see the right things in practice or choose the right players and will undoubtedly be swayed by personal feelings at times, I have never been convinced that this idea would work in practice.  Simply, if coaches ‘can’t’ be trusted to see the right things, how can one expect players with less training and experience make better decisions.  Players would also in many cases be making decisions about their friends and human nature compels people to see their friends in a favourable light.  At the highest level, I have had players with blindspots about the quality of certain teammates, both good and bad.  I have had experienced players who were 10% off in judging a teammates hitting percentage.  I have had teams in which certain players preferred playing with their friends on the team.

Players absolutely have insights into the team that coaches do not.  But I am not sure that a straight democracy is the answer.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

In the video, Terry Liskeyvich talks about ‘The Fifth Down‘.

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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