Tag Archives: Team Building

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.

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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 Specificity of Team Building

Conventional wisdom holds that team building is a vital component of success for any kind of activity in which workers can be divided into teams.  Sport is an obvious example and I have participated in such activities as a player and organised them as a coach.  Last season, for example, we hired a company to organise a two day team building session that included half a day on a high ropes course.  It was great fun, the guys spent time together, we were tested and challenged and had to work together to achieve those goals.  However, when I did my season review, I couldn’t in all honesty say that I could see the fingerprints of that team building session on our final performance.  All of the issues we had that impacted on our performance, both positive and negative, were things that arose during our everyday training/travelling/playing environment.  When the time came to plan this season, I thought about what kind of team building I should do, but always with the idea in the back of my mind that I’m not sure if it really works.  So I did what you should do with all conventional wisdom – challenge it.

Our goal is performance.  To achieve maximum performance we need to work effectively as a team.  To work effectively as a team we need to communicate well and trust each other to fulfil all our individual functions.  So communication and trust are the keys.

What do we need to communicate?  We need to communicate what we are doing on the court, during and between rallies.  We need to communicate fast and efficiently, probably using some kind of shared shorthand and jargon.

How do we need to trust our teammates?  We need to trust that they will a) do the right thing at the time (i.e. follow the tactics of the team) and b) do it well.  Confusion on the court is caused when one player doesn’t think his teammate will play the ball or will play it but play it badly.

All of those aspects of communication and trust are specific not only to volleyball, but also to each team and can only be improved on the court.

To paraphrase Gary Pert ‘Culture is what you do every day’.  Team building is not AN activity of the team, it is THE activity of the team.  If you want to build a effectively performing team, create good systems, practice them, enforce them consistently, practice them again.  The first and therefore most important point… create good systems.  There is no way around that.

Producing performance is a process, you can’t do it with tricks.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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