We coach the way we were coached.

This is a powerful statement that we discussed in the first session of a GMS clinic. Most of us either teach the game in the same manner it was taught to us, or else (remembering frustrations from our playing career) we go the other way and teach the game (or parts of the game) in the complete opposite manner. In either case, it is important to recognize the lasting effects that certain “truths” can have on the way we teach. They can be good. I will never forget my middle school basketball coach’s constant mantra of, “you got to elevate to dominate.” Coach Bunnell not only turned Hanby Middle School into an unstoppable offensive rebounding machine, but he also gave me a saying that my players find hilarious (I challenge you to say this to a 16 year-old girl and not make her laugh) and shaped in some small way how I coach. Let’s face it, if you want to attack effectively, you better get off the ground a little bit. On the other hand, I will always remember how much I hated a certain coach’s habit of constantly leaning on the volleyball poles and net during practices. To this day, it is something I harp about to assistant coaches and, if I ever catch myself doing it, I instantly pull away in revulsion. I would rather be caught picking my nose at practice than leaning on a pole.

With that said, I want to cast a critical eye toward one way that “we were coached,” and perhaps make some coaches think about why we teach certain things.

It is a seemingly undeniable truth of the game of volleyball that we must, “call the ball.” In any situation where a ball lands between two players in serve receive, it is quickly ascertained by the coaches (and echoed loudly by the parents!), that, “we have to talk out there!” This statement would certainly come as a surprise to anybody who has watched Galludet University (or perhaps the Deaf Olympic team) manage to serve receive quite well, despite a limited ability to talk in the traditional audible sense of the word! For the issue here is not truly one of “talking,” but of “communicating.” Watch game film with the sound off and you can see this communication take place, and most of it is nonverbal. Compounding matters is that the verbal and nonverbal communication is often in contradiction. For example:

(1) A ball is passed into Zone 5. The setter runs toward it while calling help at the same time. The left back initially makes a move to play the ball (thinking the setter won’t get there), then backs away when seeing the setter running toward the ball (because kids tend to process visual cues first), then starts to go for it after the, “help!” call is processed. By that time the ball is already on the floor and the coach is charging the R2 for a timeout.

(2) The ball is served between left and middle back. Middle back (being a good vocal libero) opens up toward left back screaming “Go-go-go!” To the passer in left back who sees the libero turn toward the ball and start talking (much like she would if she was going to play the ball), the initial communication is, “don’t play the ball,” which gets processed a split second before hearing, “Go-go-go!” which then has to be converted to the idea, “okay, I have to play the ball now.”

(3) Before the play, the setter and middle attacker agree on a slide call. The ball is passed too close to the right sideline for the setter’s liking and she thinks to audible to a front quick. The middle doesn’t catch this and continues her slide pattern. The ball drops. Or perhaps they agree to run a front quick but the ball is passed into Zone 4 and the middle thinks she can’t get there and attempts to audible to a back quick. The setter doesn’t catch this and sets the front quick. Again, the ball drops.

The issue with all 3 of those examples was not a lack of talking. In fact, in all 3 cases, the “talking” was the only part of the communication process that was done correctly! What happened was that either the verbal and nonverbal aspects of the communication process contradicted each other, or that the nonverbal communication was misinterpreted.

At the GMS clinic, I heard USA Men’s Olympic Assistant Coach Ron Larsen constantly reference the fact that, “the most important skill in volleyball is the ability to read the game.” If we put too much emphasis on, “talking,” we are taking emphasis off this vital skill. The ability to read the game is not just being able to predict whether the opposing outside hitter is going to hit line or cross. It is also about being able to quickly and accurately judge the nonverbal communication of teammates. As coaches, it is part of our job to help players learn this critical skill.

Some ways to evolve and move beyond this, “way we were coached:”

(1) Don’t discourage talking, but help your players understand that they also “talk” with their bodies as well. Help them learn how to give clear nonverbal cues to their teammates.

(2) Teach players to make sure their verbal and nonverbal communication agrees, ie, no setters charging toward the ball while yelling “help!” at the same time.

(3) Understand that the “listener” has responsibility too. It is important to send proper communication signals to teammates, but it is probably even more important to be able to properly read those communication signals and react accordingly

(4) Recognize that speed of communication is also extremely important. The experienced setter sees the middle switching to a back quick just before the ball enters his/her hands and either passes that option up or adjusts the quick set. The sees that the middle has switched to a back quick just after the ball has left his/her hands. Those split seconds make all the difference!

(5) Put players in gamelike situations where they have to send and read these communication signals over and over again. Blocked drills often remove decision-making processes from the equation. Decide whether you want your team to run a beautifully-executed drill in practice or to be able to thrive in the random chaos of game point in a championship match!

Hopefully this got some of you thinking about this or other “ways we were coached,” both in ways that have been helpful and ways that can be evolved and improved upon. I would greatly appreciate hearing what you think about “talking vs communicating” and would also love hearing about some other “ways we were coached.”