Tag Archives: Scott Touzinsky

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.

Cover v2

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 ten ‘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.

A Journey Of A Thousand Miles…

…begins with a single step.  And ends with a last minute.  Our thousand (at least) mile journey ended with this minute.