Tag Archives: Karch Kiraly

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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Great Players / Great Coaches

Like almost everyone with more than a passing interest in sport, I subscribe to the truism that great players do not make great coaches.  The conventional wisdom goes something along the lines of; great players never have to understand what they do, so are unable to explain it to others.  Or at the extreme, great players cannot understand why others are not able to do the things that for them were easy and become easily frustrated therefore affecting their ability to interact with their team.

The recent book ‘This is Your Brain on Sports‘ by L. Jon Wertheim studied the topic and found that among baseball managers, the best managers were below average players, and the best players who became managers were below average managers. Right now I am pretty sure you are sitting in front of your computer going through some list in your mind of the great coaches who were never great players (Mourinho, Jackson, Popovich, Velasco) and the great players who were not good coaches (Maradona, Russell), nodding vigourously and perhaps wondering were I am going with this.

It dawned on me that other that perhaps the statement is not as true as we instantly imagine.  If you turn the question around a bit and ask how many coaches are great coaches, you probably come up with a pretty low number.  A small percentage of coaches are actually great at coaching. As you would expect in any field. The next question is how many great players actually become coaches. I think that is a pretty low number too.  In big time professional sports (for example football or basketball) players would have to take big pay cuts to become coaches even if they started at the top. And the work is really, really hard. They probably also have more employment options outside their sport. There is no motivation to go through a difficult process for less money than they earnt as players. To do that requires a very specific motivation. At lower level professional sports (for example volleyball), there seem to be more great players who become coaches.  Quite a few great players who are working at the highest level (Kiraly, Bernardi, Giani, Lang Ping).  Perhaps they have fewer options outside their sport, and are less financially independent to the extent that coaching is a better career choice.

Given the small number of actual great players, and the even smaller number of them who try to be coaches, maybe that is too small a number to be significant. Therefore, maybe what we think we are seeing is not really there.  Maybe coaching and playing are two completely independent skill sets. Some people have both of them, some have one or the other, and some have neither.

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Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Honour And Respect

One of the most common everyday challenges for a coach is his / her team playing at the level of the opponent. Against a better opponent it is rarely a problem, except that the coach often wistfully wishes the team always played like that. Against weaker teams it is a huge frustration, as ‘unnecessary’ sets or even matches are lost. To complicate matters further, in some places (mostly the United States) ethical pressures are placed on the coach to restrict the team’s performance so as not to risk ‘running up the score’ and therefore ‘disrespecting’ an opponent. In extreme cases coaches can be censured, suspended or even fired for winning by too much.

This is not a mindset that I can easily comprehend. As a competitor the most disrespected I have ever felt was when an opponent did not take my team seriously and therefore gave less than their best effort. Big losses never discouraged me, rather they inspired me to work harder, to work smarter, to get better. As a coach I have felt the disappointment from our opponents when they realised we would not be playing our strongest lineup in that match, and I understood their point of view. We were not taking them as seriously as they felt they deserved to be. These matches always make me much more nervous than any championship playoff.

Recently the topic has come up twice in a volleyball context. During a Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview, top Scottish coach Simon Loftus stated that “the best thing you can do to a team is beat them 25-0”. In other words, you don’t mess about, or ‘take the mickey, but play with as much concentration and focus as you would for a championship match (see below for the clip). At the currently being held FIVB Women’s World Cup in Japan, USA defeated Algeria by the set scores of 25-7, 25-2, 25-5. While such a score would lead to many of his colleagues fearing for his job, USA coach Karch Kiraly, as a player one of the greatest competitors of all time in any sport, put it in into perspective in the post match press conference.

“It doesn’t matter who’s across the net; we honour our opponents, we honour our sport, and we honour our programme and team. I like what we did today.”

I agree wholeheartedly.  Honour and respect means playing at the maximum of your ability.

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.

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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Quotes – Part 3

Over the last couple of years on the facebook page I have posted quotes that jumped out at me from various sources.  Here is the third collection of some of them. In no particular order.  Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.

“Every player should take 5 minutes to themselves before practice and mentally lock into what needs to be done. Jeff Boals

“Training doesn’t have to be certain length of time to be effective.” Mark Lebedew

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. Ken Robinson

“The interesting thing about coaching is troubling the comfortable and comforting the troubled.” Ric Charlesworth

“Practice is the battle you must win.” Hugh McCutcheon

“The bagger is the technique of lazy.” Daniele Bagnoli

“After the game is before the game.” Sepp Herberger

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas. Susan Cain

“Victories come when their time comes. Often later than you wish. Patience is an essential quality of a coach’s profession.” Vyacheslav Platonov

“It’s not all rainbows and ponies.” Hugh McCutcheon

“You cannot buy experience. You have to fight for it.” Marc Wilmots

“The idea that I [should] trust my eyes more than the stats, I don’t buy that because I’ve seen magicians pull rabbits out of hats and I know that the rabbit’s not in there.” Billy Beane

“If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.” Pat Riley

“Volleyball is not like a formula so we must give players some freedom.” Karch Kiraly

“Great organisations choose principles over people. When you give up on the principles, sooner or later you will break down.” Ettore Messina

“What you see is more important than what you know.” Giovanni Guidetti on scouting Continue reading

Quotes – Part 1

Over the last couple of years on the facebook page I have posted quotes that jumped out at me from various sources.  Here is a collection of some of them. In no particular order.

“From failure you learn ten times more. Victory gives you ten minutes of peace, but then it makes you stupid.” Pep Guardiola

“Being a coach is fascinating. That is why it is so difficult for some to give up. It’s sweet, a constant feeling of excitement, your head is going at 100mph all the time.” Pep Guardiola

“In a club’s normal practice sessions, the idea is for the coaches to push the players so that they work just one notch harder than they want to work.” Phil Jackson

“The key is not the “will to win” – everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important.” Bobby Knight

“Football is not art. But there is an art to playing good football. … It is also very difficult to play simple football. It is the same with artists. The best work is not difficult, it is simple.” Ruud Krol

“I hope that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.” Michaelangelo

“Football, as anything else, is always a series of problems. Your success will depend on how well you are prepared and how well you handle those problems as they come along.” Bill Walsh

“Success is about having. Excellence is about being.” Mike Ditka

“There’s a different between knowing the path and walking the path.” Morpheus

“If you make every game a life and death proposition you’re going to have problems. For one thing, you’ll be dead a lot.” Dean Smith

“Real competitiveness is what you do when the opponent is yourself.” Mark Lebedew
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