Posted in Coaching

Returning to the blogosphere

It’s been about 2 years since I have written a blog post. I used to do it mainly to tie in with my university study, and since I finished I haven’t really had the inclination. For some reason today I thought it might be a good time to start again.

Since finishing study I have gone through some significant changes in my personal life, including getting engaged and having a baby, and professionally I have gone from managing a basketball association to casually coaching to now becoming a full time coach with the QAS volleyball program. The program has had some fairly significant structural changes in both staff and athletes.

QAS logo

The Volleyball Australia Queensland Academy of Sport Volleyball Program (I know its a mouthful, that’s why we just go with QAS Volleyball for short) has been around for years. It has led to Queensland being the dominant state for volleyball in Australia. (I haven’t got figures on how many Queenslander’s are in national teams just now, but I will in the near future and I’ll put them up)

2017 see’s a change in head coach (Craig Marshall) and the addition of a full time assistant coach (that’s me!). While we have maintained what we believe are a lot of the strengths of the program from recent years, our goal is to make the program better and take it forward with new innovations and improvements. To successfully do this Frog (Craig) and I have regular discussions about volleyball skills and tactics, as well as what he likes to call “the art of coaching”. I figure the best way to record some of this information is to put it up on a blog. After all, we want everyone to benefit from any good ideas we have, and if we can get some more from other people as well even better.

 

Posted in Coaching, Uncategorized

Potential and Talent

I was reading a post by Alexis Lebedew, There’s More to Talent, and it reminded me of a previous conversation I had with him. Essentially the idea that people exactly meet their potential as otherwise they would have achieved more was the topic.

 

While a junior athlete still has the potential to achieve anything, by the end of their career this potential diminishes to what they have already achieved. In essence someone will meet their potential. The heights of their achievement however may be limited by their motivation, physical attributes, uncontrollable factors or any of an innumerate list of things that can hold someone back from ultimate success.

 

This poses an issue when it comes to talent identification however. If you dont know all of the extrinsic factors that are going to influence them, you cant accurately identify talent. Every coach knows that the biggest or best or strongest or most gifted wont necessarily be the one at the end of the day that wins, there are always other things that come into play. Coaches however have to weigh up the liklihood of someone being successful, and this is when the typical notion of potential come from. While someone may eventually meet their true potential, coaches explore athletes hypothetical potential looking at physiology, physchology and circumstance.

 

You never really know who will be the best, but you can make an educated guess at who is most likely.

Posted in Coaching

Placebos in High Performance Sport

A Placebo is something of no intrinsic remedial value that is used to appease or reassure another. There is no completely agreed upon definition of what a placebo is, and the scope of therapy can extend from an ingested agent to a physically inert external treatment. The concept of the placebo effect can extend to include
every conceivable beneficial biological, social, or human interaction that doesn’t involve some drug well-known to the pharmacopoeia. Irving Kirsch hypothesised that the self-fulfilling effects of response expectancies, in which the belief that one will feel different, leads a person to actually feel different. This effect is the placebo effect.

Despite the vast amount of research in the area of placebos, the phenomenon has remained largely unchallenged in the area of sport and performance. In high performance it is likely that there are a great number of therapies and ergogenic aids that are used with no real effect of the athlete. Instead, there is the potential for a placebo effect to occur providing a false positive for improved performance. Expectation and conditioning are among the strongest areas for explaining the placebo effect and a large component of high performance sport involves mental training of an athlete by their coaches and support staff.

The placebo effect is a psychobiological reaction attributed to numerous mechanisms including expectation of improvement and Pavlovian conditioning. These psychological reactions can have performance benefits, and when you look at high performance sport the single highest priority is performance outcome. Numerous studies have been completed where athletes falsely believe they have been administered performance enhancing agents, and obtain performance improvements over baselines and controls. These improvements may only be an increase of 1% however at top levels that can be enough to mean the difference between winning and losing. With restrictions on what agents an athlete can use and what equipment and techniques are allowed win each sport it is necessary to look at every possible option for getting the winning edge on the opposition. Some aids that can be used may only provide a placebo effect on the athlete, but this can lead to real performance outcomes.

It is shown that false belief may enhance performance. This can be achieved through a conscious decision making process as opposed to any direct somatic or psychological mechanism. To be able to determine the real benefit of a placebo however, it would be necessary to look deeper into the actual reasoning for the performance enhancements that are achieved. At the moment the only true way of determining whether there is a placebo effect in place is through performance measures and recording athlete results. If there were some neurobiological mechanism that has a physiological effect on the individual causing these changes, it would be necessary to determine what it is and then measure the impact that it has.

Posted in Coaching

More Rule Changes?

In a post I was reading More Rule Changes? it discussed a number of potential changes to volleyball. These include, servers to land behind the end line, back row attackers must land behind the attack line, eliminate open-hand tip, eliminate overhead serve receive, penalties for a missed serve?, free substitution, no contact with center line, no contact with the net, change in points for a set.

This had me thinking about what changes would actually improve the game of volleyball. Most of the time it is suggested that the rallies are too short and that extending the length of each point will make the game more interesting for spectators. In my experience, new people to the sport are overawed by the speed of the game play, not the number of times the ball crosses the net. I feel like improving the possibility for big kills and fast plays should be the way to go, not slow the game down and make it harder to win a point. Just like in every other sport, the most entertaining part of the game is the end of a point (or when you score a goal). Everybody loves to see a combo run and a massive kill that bounces inside the 3m line. We should find more ways of making that happen.

The reason I believe, that extending the rallies is a priority, is that when they do happen (which is quite rare in elite volleyball) it is because of some spectacular plays on the court. It isn’t the length of the rally that is entertaining, its the skill and athleticism displayed that everyone wants to see.

Posted in Coaching

The Final Week before a Tournament

So after nearly 5 months of training and planning it is now a week before the first match of Australian Junior Volleyball Championship. The ACT U19’s have played in a NSW state cup where they came third, losing only one match to the eventual undefeated winners, a training camp in Sydney as well as numerous training matches including a number of wins against the ACT U23 team. The team has had a lot of match success as well as some tough losses and are in final preparation for their end goal of winning a medal at AJVC.

With all of this training and competing, it was interesting to look through the attendance and notice that there have only been 4 training sessions that have had the entire team attend. Between national junior team tours, national junior netball representation, injury, family trips, year 12 and illness over 90% of the trainings have had at least one player missing. Even though this may sound like a bad thing it actually turns out that these 4 trainings have been the final 4 sessions that the squad has before the tournament, and the team is playing the best that they have since coming together as a squad because of it.

Coaches often talk about how vital it is that everyone turns up to trainings and meetings and that if you don’t it hurts the team as much as the athlete themselves, but after thinking about these facts for my team in particular I don’t think that it is quite true. Having some players away from time to time (especially the strongest in the group) has had the benefit of having the weaker girls be able to have some additional skill focus that may otherwise not have been possible, on the flip side when some of the weaker girls have been away it has meant that the top of the group have been able to do more difficult and complicated training that would not have been possible with “weak links” in the group. I feel that over a long period, having people missing from time to time has actually benefitted the team and now that the whole squad is together for the final weeks of training they can fix any niggling issues that haven’t been present with all 12 not present together.

 

Before the final competition starts I am going through a process of reflection over the trainings that the team has done. It’s too late now to try to change the plans that we have in place, and the girls will either play well or not, so stressing over what will happen is pointless, but as a coach I think its important to look back at what I planned to achieve and what has actually been achieved.

The team had a big focus on fitness throughout the entire training program, sacrificing 1/4 of every training session to do fitness work just to ensure that the girls were getting it done, this meant that there was a lot of time that could have been spent improving skills was spent on conditioning. The idea behind this was to reduce injury and fatigue not only at the final competition but long term as well. It also was intended to create an increased team bond, and discipline, while developing physical ability to perform tasks that, for some of the girls, would otherwise not be possible. Looking over the season, there were a number of injuries early on in the training program (4 ankles, 2 backs, 3 shoulders, 2 knees, 1 shin splints and a couple of fingers) however now that we are a week out there are only two girls have current issues, both of which are to do with not doing exercises that they were given to do at home. The team has a tight bond and while they complained every second of the first few fitness blocks now they just get it done. While I am not sure that the girls have actually become as strong and fit as I had desired, the purpose of the fitness was more than this and I am confident that it has been beneficial.

Another major focus for the team has been taking responsibility for their actions and managing themselves. One of the biggest issues in junior sport that I see is that the athletes simply cant look after themselves, and if someone doesn’t tell them what to do, they don’t do it. With this team I felt that, seeing as they are getting to the point where they need to be treated as adults in day to day life, I decided that I would treat them as adults. This meant putting expectations on them they may have seemed unreasonable, and some things didn’t happen because it wasn’t driven by the coaching staff, however now that we are approaching the end of the program, all of the girls are turning up early and preparing the court and themselves without instruction (at least most of them) and they are able to run their own warm ups and team meetings including some activities outside of training that were organised entirely without prompting.

The only two other things that were major priorities for me in my planning for the team were having them all continue to play (and preferably compete at AJVC again next year) and for the team to win a medal. Neither of which I can determine at the minute, however I feel that the team in the best position it could be to achieve these two goals that it could be, but only time will tell.

Posted in Coaching

On court vs Off court

Recently I have had to deal with a number of issues with one of my teams that has been completely unrelated to the sport itself. Instead of improving technical and tactical abilities of the team we are managing player behaviour (or staff in some cases) and persionality clashes. I have noticed this is a common theme in every team that I have beeen involved with, as a player or coach. This is normal and some player management is going to be necessary in all teams, however a problem arises when the coach spends more time on these issues than they do on the on court performance.

I personally have never found the line as a coach where I felt the need to remove a player from the team because the off court drama’s detracted too much from the on court performance. This becomes very taxing as a coach, so maybe the line needs to become more definite. Every team, whether social or professional, beginner or expert, has people that take up a lot of time while others take up minimal amounts of time, but where do you draw the line?

Late last year Pat Rafter made the call as captain of the Australian Davis Cup to to not consider Bernard Tomic for selection, based on his off-court actions and behaviours. In his opinion it is necessary “part of the commitment that we make to athletes and athletes make to the sport is they always put 100 per cent commitment and effort in competing for their country”, and this took priority over selection based on playing performance.

I am not sure that there is a specific ratio of time that needs to be spent on each of these areas of coaching, however in recent times I have noticed that more and more of my time is used dealing with off court dramas, and typically these occur with athletes that are not going to make a significant difference to on court performance. When do you stop trying to control a situation by helping a player and when do you cut your losses and move on?

One thing I can say is when an athlete is not conscious of their behavior, they can have a direct impact on the team, as well as themself. Bad attitudes at training, or not showing up, poor sportsmanship and disrespect tend to prove to a coach and the team, that playing at your best and improving your team are not really a high priority.

Posted in Coaching

AUS Junior Women in Thailand

I was fortunate to be invovled in the recent Austrlian Junior Womens volleyball tour to Thailand as head coach of one of the teams. This trip involved girls from the 1996/1997 age group (U18’s) from all around Australia, and there were two Australian teams, however these were split relatively equally and there was no first/second team distribution. This Thailand tour was a challenging and demanding trip, but at the same time a fantastic opportunity for the touring squad to develop their Volleyball skills on and off the court to the standards required to compete at the International level, in particular the ability to deal with the environmental demands of competing in Asia.

The squad trained together where possible, but the two teams had separate trainings during the competitive phase. Unfortunately neither team was able to progress beyond their pool due to the high quality of the opposition they came up against. Both teams had 4 competition matches, and the Gold team which i was involved with had an additional training match against the Thai national junior team (1994/1995 born) that will be competing at world junior championships later this year. After the competition we had an internal match, where the two teams where changed around, and then from this internal match 21 players were selected to compete against the Vietnamese junior team (1996/1997 born). In the final match of the Thailand Development Tour, the Australian composite team gave their all, but were edged out in a thrilling five-set match.

The biggest focus for this tour from a coaching perspective was to teach and delivery “The AUS way”. The style of volleyball that we want to represent and achieve. The biggest part of the AUS style is:

Represent Our Country: Representing Australia with pride, passion & what it means every time we put on our AUS uniform. Value that we are representing our sport, our HP system, people back home, past coaches, past teammates, friends & families.

Compete: Be absolutely prepared for “the battle”, the Physical battle, the Mental battle, the Emotional battle. Have a crack! and risk losing to win by playing strong with a clear plan and purpose and work hard on and off the court to be able to achieve this.

These along with a number of other factors are the major things that the coaching staff wanted the atheltes to take home from the tour. The results of the competition were secondary to teaching the style of game that we want to be able to play. These trips offer an opporunity to the Australian junior volleyball athletes to see the standard of competition overseas, and show the requirements of what they will need to be able to do to compete with national teams in the future. This is one step in the junior program which ends with Asian Juniors late next year (unless the final team successfully qualifies for world juniors the year after). Forunately, on this tour there were a number of girls who displayed the attiributes that we want, and when they did this, the teams gained success.

The squad was also privilaged enough to be on tour for ANZAC day in Thailand. We were offered the opportunity by the Australian Embassy to go to Hellfire Pass, a site from the Thailand-Burmese railaway, for a dawn service, and then to Kanchanaburi War Cemetery for another rememberance ceremony. This offered the girls an opportunity to meet the 7 remaining POW’s from WWII that were present at the services. These POW’s were part of the 13000 Australian prisoners that were forced to work on the railway. There is a description of the events of the day as written by one of the junior squad members that can be found at http://www.avf.org.au/index.php?id=32&tx_ttnews[cat]=25&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=1821&tx_ttnews[backPid]=31&cHash=06f3ef6c81

These tours are an integral part of the development of the Australian Junior Womens Program, and they are an invaluable learning experience for these girls. They are a great experience for both volleyball and personal development and i hope that we are able to continue such trips in the future.

Posted in Coaching

Simple “rules” are often the best

After looking through some old blogs and searching around for something to procrastinate from study, I came upon Setter’s Rules by Mark Lebedew. It discusses some basic rules for executing setting in volleyball. I have previously had discussions with a number of people about these rules and found it interesting to read over it again.

These “Setter’s Rules” came from Harlan Cohen, an American volleyball coach who had been involved with various level, including the US National Womens Team.

SETTER’S RULES

 

1. THE SETTER MUST PLAY EVERY SECOND BALL

 

2. THE SETTER MUST SET EVERY BALL WITH HIS / HER HANDS

 

3. THE SETTER MUST ALWAYS JUMP SET

It got me thinking about another conversation I previously had with Alexis Lebedew (Mark’s brother) about why should we limit junior athletes because we think something is too difficult for them? If we limit them how can they ever be expected to improve?

These setters rules are simple, and specific, but still provide scope for vast differences in technique and style. What they do however is say the responsibility (rule #1), and a minimum standard (rules #2 and #3). Other than this the rest is up to the coach and athlete to work out for themselves.

Why shouldn’t all technical “rules” and directions be simple and specific? I am regularly in discussions (and arguements) with coaches about how something should be done, or what the best way to do it is, and undoubtably these conversations talk about tiny little technical aspects that at the end of the day are probably not the most important part anyway.

Maybe the best way to teach a skill is to keep it as simple as possible, and let the athlete develop their own individual tendencies around that. The only issue then is that if a different coach comes along to work with the athelte, are they going to have the same philosophy? Or will they want to force a particular style on the athlete that will then alter what they have done with you? Often coaches want to do something spectacular to show how clever they are, and what a good coach they are, when in reality it takes away from what they are trying to teach.

In the Australian Junior Womens Program, the technical skill of passing has documents with up to 20 skill keys, when in reality, the main one that is focussed on and really the only one needed is “platform to target”. This is the simplest of keys, but very clear and has a minimum standard, if the reult is different to what you want, chances are it can be corrected with this. You can always be further develop and progress the skill, explaining the way the platform should be held and the footwork involved and the way you aim and move the platform etc. but at the end of the day, if the platform is pointing at the target, then the ball will go that way. This simple instruction will also allow for the athlete to add their own characteristics and be able to best use their natural physicality and movement patters, without taking away from what is needed to perform the skill with technical accuracy.

If you allow for greater and more difficult things to happen they may just do that, if the environment is controlled so that only the desired task can be completed, then the athlete will never achieve more that is required.

Posted in Coaching

Playing for Sheep Stations

One of the things that all coaches come across at various times is an athlete or parent who thinks the competition that they are playing in is the most important thing in the world. The issue can be that the parent or player doesn’t understand that they are meant to be having fun and getting exercise. A colleague of mine makes the point that if its not Senior World Champs or The Olympics, it really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day they are not playing for sheep stations and its not their livelihood.

One athlete in my team has parents who are very demanding and have high expectations for performance. The only real issue with this is that they are unrealistic as to the end goal of their daughter. She won’t be representing Australia in the senior national team, and even if she did, they wouldn’t be competing in the Olympics. Really they should let her play and enjoy the competition that she gets rather than trying to interfere and suggest what would be best for their daughters long term prospects.

I have been fortunate enough to be involved with numerous different program levels within volleyball. I have played an coached in high performance and also in recreational levels. At the end of the day, the competition you are playing in is the one that you need to be concerned about. You can keep in mind what other things you might need to do as well, but you can’t control what other people are going to do.

Another athlete in a team I am coaching is set on a USA college scholarship. This means that she needs to sit the SAT’s for her entrance requirements. unfortunately both times that the test is being held occurs on days where we have preliminary tournaments in the lead up to national juniors. While I have mentioned that the team will do better with her there and it would be best for her to come along to the tournaments, I also have mentioned that there are bigger picture decisions that need to be made. I think it is inappropriate when coaches of junior teams and amateur competitions do not accommodate greater life decisions that their athletes need to make. While the team will lose out, at the end of the day it is just a game, and it isn’t the end of the world if one person has to miss out for a reason that you have no control over.

I hope to one day be involved in a full time professional volleyball team, but until that day, it simply isn’t important enough to hold back the development of my players by refusing to accommodate their other lifestyle needs.