Book Review: Volleyball, Freakonomics and Gladwell

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When I was a young coach, I thought of volleyball solely as techniques and tactics, essentially a problem solving exercise.  Take Technical Deficiency A, apply Training Method B, problem solved.  Or identify Tactical Weakness X, develop Tactic Y, problem solved.  Indeed this two dimensional problem solving idea was one of the things that originally attracted me to volleyball coaching as a profession.  (An inability to allow myself to be interested in anything otherwise constructive was the other one).  In my case, youth and ignorance were close companions and it was only later and to my great surprise that I discovered a not unimportant third (metaphorical) dimension at play.  (There are of course, four actual dimensions at play in the game of volleyball).  This is the human dimension.  No matter how you look at it, you can’t not notice that at the heart of every volleyball problem lies one common denominator – people.  That is not to say that it is not possible, with what I can only presume is great effort, to ignore the people.  One club director upon hearing my theory that players were people first, immediately and unequivocally disagreed.  It perhaps goes without saying that the on and off court success I had with the team that season was not rewarded with a contract renewal.  But I digress…  Whatever technical and tactical templates are applied to it, volleyball (and all sport) (and nearly everything really) is a massively complicated outcome of interactions between and among people in a group and between groups.  And not just during the game.  The game itself is a small part of the overall life of a team.  Which in a roundabout way brings me to my point.

I recently read a (mostly) excellent volleyball book (‘Talent and the Secret Life of Teams’ by Terry Pettit) in which the author describes how his journey to coaching wisdom was a rambling journey and included many stops and detours that weren’t literally volleyball related.  His point was that in nearly every area we care to look, we can find lessons applicable to volleyball and volleyball coaching and by extension, that we should search widely.  Like all people I gravitate towards and best absorb information that tends to confirm that which I already believe and thus instantly recognised his advice as infinitely sage.  And so I read ‘Superfreakonomics‘ by Levitt and Dubner. (Actually I read it because the I’d already read and enjoyed ‘Freakonomics‘ but this way is a better story).  In the introduction I read that the theme of the book is that  “People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest.  Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences.  This applies to schoolteachers and Realtors and crack dealers as well as expectant mothers, sumo wrestlers, bagel salesmen, and the Ku Klux Klan.” Since I already know that volleyball is about people, and I’d intuitively learnt that the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ very early in my career, I knew I was going to learn a lot.  Indeed as I read about prostitutes and global warming solutions and monkeys and altruism, the notion kept entering my head that the book itself was an example of the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’.  The authors intended to write an economics book but in the end actually wrote a coaching book.  And a good one, too.

And Gladwell?  You shouldn’t need a reason to read Gladwell.


  1. big fan of freakonomics. i have superfreakonomics but haven’t gotten round to reading it. Tipping point, outliers, and gladwell’s blog are great too. I loved outliers so much that i bought extra copies and gave it out to other volleyball coaches i knew. After reading freakonomics a couple of years ago, i started to look at coaching as the “study of incentives” too – particularly in training.

    Freakonomics has this great example about the daycare centre that added a late fee for parents coming late for the kids but ended up experiencing more late pick-ups. There are drills you run where the penalties and incentives you set have “unintended consequences”. I always think about that daycare centre when something doesn’t work at training.

    There are a lot of places good ideas for coaching can come from. Reading Sacred Hoops, I’m amazed how much Zen Buddhism and therapy techniques Jackson uses. Oddly a lot of my ideas for coaching come from my work as a filmmaker and business owner. Creative people can sometimes be quite similar to athletes. And for an environment where smart people try to change behaviours with incentives with unintended consequences, you need look no further than film!


  2. I actually account for unintended consequences now to a degree, particularly in drill design. After a while, they can actually become predictable.
    ‘Sacred Hoops’ is THE classic book. I have bought it seven or eight times for myself and various other people. I have also read nearly everything I can get hold of about Jackson, except ‘Maverick’, and as much as I love and recommend ‘Sacred Hoops’, I am fairly sure there is a divide between his (stated) philosophy and his actions. I think ‘Sacred Hoops’ is his own idealised version of events. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just probably good to understand that it isn’t a text book.
    You take the lessons from your own experience because you don’t have other experience. You just happen to work as a filmmaker so that’s where you get your experience. People are people.


  3. Too true Mark. We are never quite as perfect as we would like to think we are. I am buying a lot of copies of sacred hoops to give out. If anything, it provides a good insight into an alternative way to coach. As a juniors / beginners coach i work with a lot of coaches who aren’t from volleyball, so it’s a good way to introduce them to the idea that volleyball shouldn’t necessarily be coached like an invasion sport!

    The one resource I am loving at the moment is the ancient FIVB level 1 coaching book that seems to date back to the early 90s. but strangely, there is some ageless wisdom in there that is eerily relevant now! I’ll post it up on my blog at some point! you’ll get a crack out of it!


  4. I dig the premises of the other books this author’s put out. And, he has a knack for writing for the masses, which is probably why he’s on the NYT Bestsellers list so often (what with mechanics like “Or are they?”–dun, dun, dun!). You would’ve certainly have heard of this guy if you listen to NPR at all.


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