Recently, as I sat in a staff meeting, my attention was drawn to a motivational thought-framed poster, one of many that randomly hung around the conference room. Its message struck me; it truly had me reflecting on my coaching philosophies. This particular poster depicted the Running of the Bulls from Pamplona, Spain. Three imposing bulls ran down a cobble rock street with a man dressed all in white, save for a red scarf, racing out in front of the bulls. The man looked neither terrified nor panicked, just very concerned. In bold letters the word TRADITION runs across the bottom of the picture. In smaller words is a motivational phrase: “Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”
A popular, and hopefully more accurate, definition of tradition from a dictionary states: “tradition is an inherited, established or customary pattern of thought, action social attitudes and customs.”
Disrupting tradition is often very painful because it disrupts cultural beliefs. Volleyball is rich in tradition, from the way we conduct team tryouts, how we condition our team, to how we teach a skill, the words we use to teach the skill and even the offensive system we choose to run.
The traditional coach is an island unto himself. The traditional “why to coach” is that the coach is a fountainhead of knowledge and the players are empty vessels to be filled. When someone alters tradition, people become uneasy and distressed, or threatened because they can’t fall back on how they’ve always operated. Tradition is a painful thing to alter; yet change is necessary when our traditional coaching isn’t getting the results we want.
In coaching young volleyball athletes, we have to stop using techniques that do not produce continuous improvement for players. In order for us to embrace what works, we have to know what is working, why it is working and be able to show data that proves what we are doing is actually working. This is where the power of assessments and shared data becomes imperative.
Not long ago I took a group of girls to a clinic/tryout for a Junior National Team. The girls were so excited because college, high school and club coaches from around the region and state would teach the two-day clinic. I found it so very interesting, in fact surprising, to walk around the different courts and observe and listen to the differing philosophies and techniques each coach was implementing. One coach’s beliefs and traditions were starkly different than the coach on the next court, who was teaching the very same skill. Examples of this were evident on virtually every skill taught. These are just a few differences that I observed; only a four-step approach for an outside attack was taught on one court, yet as I walked to the next court the coach only allowed the girls to do a three step approach for an outside hit. I heard one coach say only guys do a four-step approach because they are quicker and have longer legs, to produce momentum needed for a hard hit, yet the coach on the adjacent court validated her philosophy and taught the girls to do a “Right, Left, Right, Left” (4-step) approach.
When it came to blocking, the swing block was used on several courts, and the traditional block, which consisted of either two-step cross step or three-step foot work, was emphasized and taught on others. Transitions off the net were slightly different from one instructor to another.
Serving had a large variety of instructional differences. Some coaches taught the girls to toss with same hand as they hit with, while others taught toss with left, hit with right. Even a two hand toss was introduced. Of course, each serve had a unique step system that went with it. The jump, jump float, float and top spin serve were all taught; each coach stating in their opinion which serve was the most effective.
It was fascinating to see the setting techniques taught, elbows out or elbows in. I asked one coach which skill was currently being taught, and he stated the trend now is to keep the setters elbows in, but before he started implementing the new technique he needed to see more data to be convinced that it is was superior. The coach teaching elbows in stated emphatically that elbows in was the only way to teach an upcoming setter, because it made the set even more deceptive and harder for the opposing blockers to read.
Serve receive and passing skills had subtle changes, too, such as ready position for a passer. Some players had hands up (belly button height) with palms up, other players started with hands lower, out front and palms parallel.
Players were instructed to turn hips and lead leg to target when passing, on other courts players were instructed to face the ball and angle the arms. When contacting the ball, some coaches were teaching to contact the ball midline of body, others taught to pass slightly inside left leg or lead leg facing target.
New ideas were taught, such as the libero becoming the new “out of system” setter.
My girls left the camp confused and a bit frustrated; questioning the correct and accurate skills they need to be learning. To be honest, I was frustrated as well, wondering and doubting my coaching abilities. Am I doing an injustice to them in the fashion that I am training them?
When the girls asked me the right way to play, I finally had to giggle. I felt as if the girls were asking me a very personal question like, “Which church is the true church?” The only council I could give was do what each coach asked of them, give 100 percent effort to the task at hand, and at the end of the day judge for themselves what technique worked best for them. Ironically, I find myself searching for the same answers, as I go to various coaching clinics and certifications classes. Each trainer implements a different technique than the previous trainer.
There is the saying that rings so true to volleyball. It reads: “It’s the little things that make the big things.” So it is with volleyball. It is the little tricks and techniques that we teach our players which will create the awesome serve, perfect pass and killer hit.
Traditionally, coaches do not share data. Breaking from tradition is threatening because it might elevate their competition’s level of play. Our approach to sharing data must be done in a way that focuses on continuous improvement for all. We need to be able to break from the tradition of being the island unto ourselves. We need to share our data with other coaches around the world and make it easily accessible in order to make improvements that span across the volleyball arena. It is important to constantly evaluate if what we are doing is getting the desired results—especially when we are evaluating our coaching curriculum and the skills we are embedding into our volleyball players. Coaches have little control over what skill levels and knowledge our players bring to the gym. However, we can control what they walk out of the gym with.
I feel it is important to collaborate in all levels of volleyball with coaches, and come to a consensus on the general skills, techniques and key words we as coaches need to be teaching our junior players. Perhaps, to bring our teams to a higher level of athleticism, tradition in coaching needs to change just like the caption under the running of the bull’s poster stated: “Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”