Written by Dr. Carl McGown

Our volleyball coaches clinics run for three full days, usually eight hours a day. Time is precious when you only have 24 hours to learn about coaching, so we have always thought that it was very important for us to include only the most valuable topics in our clinics. One of the topics we have selected is “Developing your team through statistics.” We have always thought this topic was essential and so we have always included it in our clinics.

Recently, I have read two books and had one very important coaching experience that has made me realize more than ever the importance of using statistics to develop a team.

I’d like to try to tell you about the reading and the coaching, but it is difficult to know how to organize it all into this article. I think we should first talk about the books.

One of the books was Six Sigma by Mikel Harry and Richard Schroeder. Six Sigma is a quality change program, first conceived by Motorola during the early 1980s, later adopted by Jack Welch and General Electric, and now used by hundreds of businesses worldwide. Initially intended to apply only to manufacturing and production processes, the Six Sigma methodology is also extremely powerful and useful for virtually any service-related business. I was originally reading Six Sigma because Gold Medal Squared is a service-related business. However, I soon discovered that the concepts also apply to coaching volleyball. Take for example these five very remarkable ideas:

  • You don’t know what you don’t know
  • You can’t do what you don’t know
  • You don’t know until you measure
  • You don’t measure what you don’t value
  • You don’t value what you don’t measure

Another book was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This is a wonderful book (all volleyball coaches should read it) about the Oakland Athletics and baseball and also expresses some very remarkable ideas. Some of them are:

  • The naked eye is an inadequate tool for learning what you need to know to evaluate baseball players and baseball games.
  • One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference between a good hitter and an average hitter is simply not visible—it must be a matter of record.
  • There is a bias toward what people see with their own eyes, or think they have seen. The human mind plays tricks on itself when it relies exclusively on what it sees. There is a lot you can’t see when you watch a game.

Now the coaching experience. I am currently an assistant coach with the USA men’s Olympic team (the legendary Doug Beal is the head coach). Not just any team gets to play in the Olympics, you have to qualify. For the upcoming Athens Olympics there were two main ways: (1) win the NORCECA zones so you could play in the World Cup, and then finish in the top three in the World Cup, or (2) if you didn’t finish in the top three in the World Cup then you had to win a NORCECA zone Olympic qualification tournament in January of 2004. Win or go home. Lose and you could try again in four years but you weren’t going to the Olympics. Here is what we did. We played in the NORCECA zones in Mexico in September of 2003. We beat Cuba in the semifinals and Canada in the finals. So far so good. We played very well in this tournament, and were pleased with our team. Next would be the World Cup in Japan in November of 2003.We played a lot of good matches in this tournament, but we eventually lost to Brazil, Italy, and Serbia-Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia) and finished fourth. We were not qualified, and so everything was going to come down to the NORCECA zone Olympic qualification tournament that would be held in Puerto Rico in January. We had to win. The championship match would be on January 10th.The USA men’s team has a multitude of resources available for itself, and one of the things we do very well is statistically analyze our team. In fact, we have a coach (Rob Browning) whose primary assignment is statistical analysis. One of the things we did after the World Cup was the most complete statistical analysis we had ever done. We looked at things that we normally look at and, most important of all, we were able to look at some things at which we had never looked.GUESS WHAT HAPPENED?We learned two very important things that we didn’t know (You don’t know what you don’t know). But now we knew them.We started working to improve these things (You can’t do what you don’t know).We never would have learned these things if we hadn’t measured (You don’t know until you measure). There is no question that the naked eye is an inadequate tool for learning what you need to know to evaluate volleyball games. We never could have just seen these things.

There is a lot you can’t see when you watch a game.

Well, we played Cuba (the Cubans can jump very high and hit very hard) in the finals, and were able to win a thrilling and very closely contested match, 15-13 in the fifth.

The skills we had been working on were performed better than we had ever performed them. They were the keys to our victory. What if we hadn’t known? What if we had relied on our eyes? What if we hadn’t measured?

Team USA is going to the Olympics.