Tag Archives: Bill Simmons

The Secret About The Secret

‘The Secret’ is the central theme of Bill Simmons’ epic book about the NBA.  As revealed to him by Hall of Fame player Isaiah Thomas, “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball”.  That is, while the collective skills of a basketball team are important, what is most important is the collective, the interactions between those skills and the personalities of the players.  If you ask virtually anyone close to basketball, or any other team sport, his opinion on the topic, I am extremely confident that virtually all would agree with Thomas’ sentiment.

‘The Secret about the Secret’ is that while virtually all agree that it’s not about (name your)ball in the abstract, almost no one actually takes it into account in practice.  In the vast majority of cases, clubs do not build teams, but collect players or, even worse, ‘assets’ or ‘pieces’*.  While clubs talk about the importance of the team, they will always, always take the slightly better player or slightly bigger name regardless of how they fit into the current team and without considering the mix of personalities**.

I have had the extreme good fortune to spend a large portion of my career working with Scott Touzinsky.  Scott was a pretty good player, especially in reception and defence, but by no means a top level player.  However, every group that Scott was involved in became a team, and most likely won or came very close to winning. His list of (team) achievements includes championships in five different countries, and an Olympic gold medal in 2008.  Yet I personally experienced two different clubs not re-signing him after the team had a great season, because he was not good enough. The drop off in performance on both occasions was catastrophic, but at least in the second case the club was smart enough to correct their mistake.  One of the highlights of my career was being able to bring him to Poland, and listen as real volleyball experts instantly recognised his contribution.

The reason that clubs don’t take into account The Secret is really simple.  Their goal is not to win.  Logically if someone acknowledges the importance of an element and yet systematically ignores it in practice, then they cannot have the goal of winning.  Their actual, hidden, motivation’ is not to look stupid or be criticised for their decisions. If a club takes a ‘worse’ player over a ‘better’ player, they will instantly be criticised and if they also lose, they will likely be sacked.  Karch Kiraly, picking the roster for the 2016 Olympics acknowledged The Secret and took a third setter instead of a fourth receiver.  This was questioned at the time, and continues to be questioned after his highly favoured team faltered in the semi-final.  But the reality is his team led that semi-final 11-7 in the fifth set.  The presence or otherwise of a fourth receiver would not have made a difference in that match.  If you look at the playing time of the fourth receivers in the men’s tournament, you will find they were essentially meaningless (in terms of points scored).  And yet he is still criticised for making that decision.

As he had the first word, so should Isaiah Thomas have the last word.  He knows The Secret, but as the General Manager of the New York Knicks he aggressively ignored it in building historically bad teams, including signing multiple stars who played the same position.  He himself could have predicted the outcome***.


*In the case of the AFL, they don’t even call them ‘teams’ anymore. What the f*** is a ‘playing group’?

**It goes without saying that it becomes the responsibility of the coach to mould these disparate, ill considered pieces into a team.

***He was criticised at the team for his team building. It is still not clear what his hidden motivation was.  One writer judged him as the second worse General Manager of all time.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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The Hockey Error

A lot, or at least a few, sports count assists among their statistics.  That is, the pass that leads to a score.  In volleyball, at least in America, a set that leads to a spike point is an assist. In basketball, a pass that leads to a basket is an assist.  But in hockey, not only the pass that leads to a goal counts as an assist, but also the pass that leads to the pass that leads to a goal counts as an assist.  In some circles (i.e. Bill Simmons), that kind of assist is referred to a ‘hockey assist’.

In volleyball there are a lot of structural / organisational / communication errors where the fault seems to be obvious.

  • A tip falls in front of a defender.  The fault is obviously that the defender to not commit to defending the ball.  The obvious solution is to berate them for lack of effort and possibly some drill to encourage the player to change their habit.
  • A middle blocker has a chance to set a high ball but commits a ball handling error.  The obvious solution is to berate them for their lack of technical skill and possibly some drill to improve that technical ability.

You get the idea.  The wrong player receives the ball.  The wrong player sets the ball.  A player touches the net.  All simple errors with obvious solutions.

But what if things aren’t so simple.  What if there is such a thing as a ‘hockey error’.  I have written before that what looks like a lack of effort is most often actually a lack of readiness. In that example, the lack of effort is the error and the lack of readiness is the hockey error.  In the middle blocker setting example, the hockey error is probably not turning fast enough after landing from the block.  Many errors that are attributed to lack of calling, have as their hockey error a player moving towards the ball and then stopping.  Being in the wrong position is the hockey error in many different situations.

As a coach, focussing on the error can have some improvement on performance.  But focussing on the hockey error can have a profound effect on understanding of the game.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Quotes – Part 4

Everyone loves a good quote.  A good quote from a perceived expert can confirm a previously held prejudice… er, idea, or provide an important new insight.  Sadly, though, quotes taken out of their original context can intentionally or otherwise mislead the reader.

For example, as reported here, the purported Velasco quote “I am a coach, not a psychologist”, is actually:

“Some things do not work because we do not train them. For instance, we hit, the ball is overdug, it comes directly to us, it falls. Many coaches would say: my players are not focused, they have psychological problem. I coach perfectly, but I am not a psychologist, so I cannot do anything, it is not my fault. Psychology is the great excuse nowadays.”

The lesson is – Beware the pithy quote.

That having been said, I also love a good quote and have collected a few of them here.  Most have already appeared on either the facebook page and or Twitter page too (as well as probably dozens of other internet sources).  This is the fourth collection.  Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

“I need to go where I know it’s going, not where I hope it’s going.” Karch Kiraly on service reception

“The longest metre in volleyball is a high ball set 2m from the net or 1m. The difference is your advantage or theirs. The difference is to be aggressive or passive.” Mark Lebedew

“It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.” Bear Bryant

“The more you lose, the more positive you have to become.  When you’re winning, you can ride players harder because their self esteem is high.  If you are losing and you try to be tough, you’re asking for dissension.”  Rick Pitino

“It is not enough to do things well. Things must be done better than the others.” Julio Velasco

“‘It was a difficult decision to fire the coach’, actually means ‘The easiest thing to be seen to be doing something is to fire the coach.'”  Mark Lebedew

“The older I get the more I think sport is random… You have to put yourself in a good position, then you need a lot of luck.” Bill Simmons

“Excellence is like a bubble. You can look for it as much as you like but it only appears from time to time.” Pep Guardiola

“By striving for order and predictability in practice, coaches create a practice that appears to be good to observers and leads to immediate practice improvements, but fails to prepare players for the unpredictability of the game.” Brian McCormick

“We all have emotion and reason. We should not let either of them take care of everything.” Bernardinho

“Everybody likes the guy who works hard. Nobody likes the guy who tells you how hard he works.” Lloy Ball

“Sometimes being quiet and letting the player play is much more important than trying to be Mr. Coach and teach him this or teach him that.” Gregg Popovich

“You see it when you understand it.” Johan Cruyff

“Don’t dream it. Be it.” Frank N’ Furter

“When we lost, we did not say anything. We prepared from that day on in order to win again”. Julio Velasco

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” -Sun Tzu

“You have to be willing to fail, to improve.” Al Scates

“Excellence has neither any beginning nor any end. It is not a destination; rather it is a continuous passage….a perpetual voyage……towards infinity.” From ‘Friday Reflections’

“The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who wish to learn.” Cicero 75BC

“If you train badly, you play badly. If you work like a beast in training, you play the same way.” Pep Guardiola

“In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… In the real world all rests on perseverance.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

On good teams coaches hold players accountable, on great teams players hold players accountable. Joe Dumars

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Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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The Greatest Pressure (Part Two) – Superbowl Edition

I wrote a while ago about the greatest pressure that coaches face.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, the greatest pressure that coaches face is NOT to win, it is to follow conventional wisdom.  Coaches are expected to do the things they are expected to do.  If they don’t, the consequences can be extremely negative. Continue reading

NBA Volleyball All-Stars

A recent question appeared on the Volleyball Coaches and Trainers Facebook page asking:

You were assigned the task of recruiting 7 NBA players who never played vball…past or present…to train for 2 years and put up against team USA. Who would you take? What position would they play? Add an 8th man as the spark off the bench.

As it happens, I have thought about this question quite a bit, with the caveat that I don’t actually know that much about the NBA except what I learnt from Bill Simmons.

Like in every other activity, you need some guiding principles before you begin.  The first principle is to recognise the unique psychological requirements for each position and fit players to the those requirements.  The second principle is, to build a team the players must be complementary.  A team isn’t about choosing the best six of anything, but rather the six that fit best together. Continue reading

Spike! Interactive Guide

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There is a famous American sports journalist named Bill Simmons.  He wrote a huge book about basketball named The Book of Basketball‘ (actually about the NBA) that became a best seller.  Because 90% of the book is about events and players that most readers have only ever heard of, an enterprising fan put up a webpage with youtube links to many of those events and players, an interactive guide, if you will.

There is a famous American volleyball coach (and administrator) named Doug Beal.  He wrote a book about volleyball named ‘Spike! (actually about the 1984 Olympic gold medal winning volleyball team) that hardly anyone bought and is now out of print.  Because I believe in preserving volleyball history and because more and more clips are starting to pop up on youtube (and because it took about 10 minutes to do) I have created an interactive guide for ‘Spike!’. 

Needless to say if you have any relevant clips that add to the narrative, I will be happy to add them. Continue reading

Pro Doping Ridiculousness

Before we begin, for the record, I am anti doping.  I am also against spurious arguments that are accepted at face value without critical analysis.

To the first point, I can’t really say why I am anti doping, other than if you allow doping, it would no longer be sport.  Unfortunately, that may be the best argument against doping.  Which leads me to the second point.

I accept that there are very strong pro doping arguments.  Unfortunately, I hardly ever see them.  Mostly, I have to (ok, I don’t have to) read ridiculous ones.  Where to begin…

“We obviously can’t stop it, we might as well allow it.”  This argument could literally be used for every single law and rule that human beings have ever created.  Of course, you can’t stop it. That is exactly the reason there are rules and laws.

“Prohibition doesn’t work, we should regulate it.”  A variation on the first argument, and equally ridiculous although for different reasons.  It misses two very important points.  Prohibition IS regulation, with the allowed limit set at zero.  If you put the limit at any other (arbitrary) point than zero, you change exactly nothing in terms of policing.  Actually, I take that back.  You would make policing even more difficult.  It is difficult enough to make a case if the presence of a substance is prohibited completely.  Imagine for a moment the chaos of somehow trying to prove a positive test at a point other than zero.  Secondly, there will always be people prepared to cheat.  Again, that is why there are rules in the first place.

“Everyone else was doing it.”  Ok, not technically an argument in favour of doping per se.  Officially the only argument that your parents will not accept as an excuse for misbehaviour when you are six years old, but works on everyone else when you are an adult found guilty of doping.

As with more or less everything, the debate / discussion on doping is hopelessly superficial.  Reality is infinitely more nuanced and many of the lines drawn between allowed and non allowed are completely arbitrary.  One rational discussion on the topic is here, in the form of a podcast featuring Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell.  And even if you’re not interested in the topic, it’s Simmons and Gladwell; there are dozens of worse ways to spend an hour.