Scouting: To Do Or Not To Do?

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In the latest episode of The Net Live, a discussion developed about scouting, or more particularly opposition scouting.  During the discussion, host Kevin Barnett made the comment that a match is won on our side of the net[1], and that information that has been scouted accounts for two to three points per match, at most.  I was a little surprised to hear such a statement from such an experienced player (he played in two Olympics) but pleased that his co-host wasn’t in total agreement.  All three of us could agree, however, that there are limits to what a player can process (normally much lower than the coach expects[2]) and (rapidly) diminishing returns for the effort a coach puts into researching an opponent.

As the topic came up in response to a previous post of mine, I began thinking about why I disagree with the statement.  I have a few reasons.  The first reason is that the knowing what the opponent will do in certain situations (and being prepared to counter it) is directly behind all of the major successes I have been involved with in coaching.  Scouting works.  Scouting wins matches.  Scouting wins big matches.  I have seen it in my teams.  I have seen it in other teams[3].  Countless times.

Some players don’t like scouting because they don’t trust the coach who did the scouting, or they think they know better, or they just don’t like it.  Some coaches don’t like scouting because they don’t think (or don’t want to think) it works[4], or because they never did it when they were playing, or because they are lazy.  Sadly, I suspect the first two are justifications for the last.  Whatever the reasons put forward (or hidden), teams/coaches/players who don’t use scouting don’t want to win, not really.   Of that I am convinced.

At other levels, for example with juniors, scouting helps in a completely different way.  For young players, being in the right position to make a play or being able to respond a little earlier to a situation can lead to success that is an important motivation during the learning process.  Giving a team one or two or three extra points, allows weaker teams to compete better and play longer against better teams, therefore speeding the development process.  I have had players who were able to successfully compete two or three levels higher than they had previously (and sadly subsequently) played because of information they received from before the match.  And it teaches players that there are other parts of the game that they must be aware of.

Of course, scouting alone doesn’t win.  Tactics alone don’t win.  And ‘just playing’ alone doesn’t win.  The teams that win are the ones who find the correct balance between playing their game and countering the opposition’s game.  ‘Maximise my team’s strengths and exploit my opponent’s weaknesses’.  Those are the principles every coach learns in their first coaching course.

The principles of preparing a team are simple.  They’re just hard work.

[1] This statement is obviously correct and is also a central tenet of Hugh McCutcheon’s philosophy.  By itself it neither includes nor precludes scouting.

[2] Every professional player has a story about receiving an 8/10/14 page scouting report.  Even a player with the attention span to finish reading that report would have difficulty implementing every part of it.

[3] The one that stood out to me the most was Brazil-Cuba in the 2010 World Championships.  I could easily have said Poland – Argentina from the recent World League finals in Gdansk, or any match played by Sisley Treviso between 2005 – 2009.

[4] My favourite quote from a coach to a player who requested information about the opposing team – “Volleyball is not chess”.  My favourite quote about no scouting report overall – “I could give you a lot of information about (the next opponent) or I could give you none.  I choose to give you none.”

One comment

  1. Scouting on the whole is an essential tool to all levels of volleyball, however as one of the lead scoutmen for Locog at London 2012 the best example of having to rely on instinct was in the mens gold medal match when Russia coach Vladimir moved Muserski to opposite hitter. The look on the Brazillain stats team bench had to be seen to be believed – no stats at all for this player in this position. Poor scouting or inspired coaching????


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