The two most important skills in our sport are reading (as in anticipation, not hunkering down with a great book, though that skill is VERY important in life) and learning. 

The two most important technical skills in our sport are serving (the one closed motor program we get to perform), and serve reception (NOT passing – as covered in my blog STOP Teaching Passing)

The two most important quotes I have read about the above are two much smarter leaders than me, Albert Einstein and John Wooden.

“You Haven’t Taught Them Until They Have Learned “– John Wooden – turned into a book by a former UCLA player of Coach Wooden.

“I never teach my pupils, I only provide them the conditions in which they can learn.” – Albert Einstein.

There are many methods coaches use to teach our sport. Alas too many of them fail to maximize the importance of reality – and thus the importance of learning and reading for performance. These coaches would rather look good in practice, despite the lack of transfer to performance, resorting to part training over whole and blocked training over random.

The word that ties this all together is retention – and the science is clear on this even if coaches fail to take advantage of it in training – telling someone what to do (explicit learning) results in far worse retention of what is being taught, when compared to implicit learning (as Einstein notes above).  While implicit learning could take a long time, the questioning and guided discovery techniques of a good teacher/coach results in almost as effective retention, while shortening the learning process. Thus one of my favorite quotes I share in my coaching clinics is by Alexandra Trentor –  “The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but not what to see.”

Why does this matter – It is because of the importance of reading in our sport.  Why is it that every coach sitting on the bench, could WALK out and get the tip shot an opposing attacker does, yet the players fail to identify it until too late?  Part of the answer comes from not training in reality – thus I used to “coach the way I was coached” and stood at the net throwing volleyballs underhanded from side to side, as my earnest players flung themselves one side and another, teammates cheering, in a classic  “coach on one” drill. I was teaching my players that the tip shot falls over the net, near the net (which it does) then shoots out from about waist height into the corners of  the court.  So then I got more “gamelike” and stood on a box on the other side of the net and trained “tipping drills” as my players watched me “frozen in the air and time” at a height never reached by any of their opponents .  Not only do no players stand on a box in reality, what I failed to teach is reading the patterns of opponents, the WHEN a player is likely to tip.  This learning of the patterns of both the game, systems and individual opponents, is really only learned by playing, never by drilling. Why else can a player walk in, both hands up, not jump, and still get their two handed tip shot to fall? Because in the end, performance in the competition comes from competitive, game speed, technical development thru game play, not from the vast majority of drills currently being used.

For five straight days, for the 10th year in a row, our top National Team and High Performance pipeline coaches shared their “secrets” with our top coaches from all over the USA and several other nations. I will share in a future blog, as I have in the past, what ideas I learned but one of the most important themes remained the importance of learning to read. So as the players shared how they learned through the chaos of random play, I “heard” our two time Olympic medal winning coach, Hugh McCutcheon speaking to the same group a few years ago.  When these top players in the nation began to play “pepper” OVER the net, with an attack jump included, things got less than perfect.  Especially compared to what good players can traditionally do in pair pepper. Hugh turned, smiled, and said “Looking a little squirrely out there…” and went back to letting the chaos teach.

Over the last 20 years, the USOC has studied characteristics of great coaches. One of the most important in each of them is that they were lifelong learners.  This is the same for your players – it is a long process and not measured just by outcome, nor is it linear – it is a rollercoaster  of learning.

You see, letting a player’s first coach be the game, not a coach, can make a coach feel a bit unimportant. So now for my final two -- questions in this case. Ask any coach who has been teaching a few years what their players remember about them. You will hear things like fun, leadership, confidence, believing in me, and the like – and likely never “we won : tournament.”  As I tweeted a while ago, “Coaches need to be less concerned with the X’s and O’s and more about the I’s and U’s.”  Secondly, research shows that in the beach game some 6 million Americans played some form of doubles volleyball last year, on grass or sand. How many beach coaches do you know right now, and if you have been in the sport for over a decade, how many beach coaches did you know back then?  Yes, playing doubles or singles in any sport when young and letting the coach be the game is important, so the patterns of play, not just the techniques, are acquired early. For in the end, the sooner we teach reading/anticipation in reality, and do things in practice that may be random, but which are learned, not just taught, and retained, not just shown in practice, the better our players will be at ANY age.

Oh, and yes, the Kessels in Sochi, both #28 and #81, are related to Cody, McKenzie and me. Isn’t it obvious from how they play the game? Who knows….