Timeouts at the VNL

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I like talking about timeouts. There are more than 50 articles just on this website about timeouts if you ever want to go down that rabbit hole. When I am watching matches on TV, I pay a lot of attention to the timeouts they show. This is partly from general interest, and partly as a learning process. I am always trying to improve my own timeouts and am eager for any tips I can pick up. As you can imagine then, I really enjoyed my time in the VNL bubble as a commentator. In 30 days I commentated on about 50 matches, and listened to at least 10 timeouts per match. You can do the maths after that 🙂 I don’t speak every language that was used, but I speak a couple and have picked up enough words to cover most of the others.Plus hand gestures often give away the general theme at least. Here are some things I learned.

There are some general themes – Volleyball is volleyball and coaches are coaches. Some of the same themes came up over and over again. Blockers have to push over the net (this is nearly always accompanied by some hand gesture). Spikers have to hit high against the block (so is this). Servers have to serve stronger. Players have to ‘play defence’.

Coaches are frustrated – All the time. Players never do what they should. Or what they were told. Or what the tactics said. And coaches use nearly all their energy shrugging their shoulders, throwing backs their heads in amazement, throwing their arms in the air. Hugh McCutcheon once said that coaches are perpetually dissatisfied. You can see it play out in body language nearly every rally.

Unless they are exasperated – That might just be a different way of saying frustrated. I think you get my point.

Even the best coaches don’t always follow the ‘rules’ of timeouts – Here are some of my favourite, very real, timeouts, taken by the best coaches in the world. The names have been changed to protect, well everyone.

Team A is leading 24-22, with serve. There is a transition opportunity that is lost through a miscommunication play. The team still has set point on reception, therefore nothing gained, but nothing lost. Except for the coach who calls a timeout, screams at his team for 30 seconds, then sends them back on the court in the perfect mindset to win the set. They won the next point. Probably out of spite.

The coach of Team B used the first 15 seconds of every timeout (ok, not every, but a lot more than you would imagine) to give his team a recap of what happened in the last 10 points. The coach mostly did that when the team had lost the majority of the last 10 points. If you have watched the webinars on communication or match coaching, you would know that avoiding commentary in timeouts is the first thing you learn in coaching school.

Team C had a decisive lead, but gave up a run of points and lost the set. Instead of spending time to rebuild their obviously shell shocked team, the coach went off by themselves, leaving the team alone. The team never recovered and lost the match. And the next one.

The coach of Team D made a big deal of not saying anything with the microphone on the timeout in case the opponent was scouting the timeouts for future matches. Because, well, I don’t know really. Most timeouts are either the same technical advice as every other coach (see above) or specific in-match information which is specific to that match. Even if both teams were playing their starters…

The coach of Team F, didn’t take a breath for the entire length of any timeouts. I was amazed by their capacity to find things to say. Whenever the players thought the coach was finished and started to break the huddle, the coach would stop them, and find yet another thing to say. In fairness, the content itself was actually pretty good.

The player of Team G got bored and walked back on the court while the coach was still talking. The coach didn’t notice.

The coach of Team H who told their team that they had already lost the match to a better team, but if they didn’t try for any ball between then and end of the match, they would come back to practice that afternoon and the coach would ‘kill’ them.

The coach of Team I who deadpanned their team during the timeout that they needed to play with more emotion. I mean so deadpan, that Albert Brooks laughed out loud. And the team came right out and inexplicably played with more emotion and won the set. Breaking more timeout rules.

And finally Vladimir Alekno (I’m not revealing anything because it has been reported here) who, through an interpreter, told his team that they were shaming their families back with their performance. That one caused a lot of social media discussion, at least in Poland who were the opponents that day.

My timeouts are not perfect. And I have been on TV enough that if you were really bored you would be able to find examples of me doing (nearly) all the things above. Embarrasingly, even the Team H kind of stuff. But noone’s perfect, and we can all learn.

If you want to learn a bit more about timeouts there are two webinars that cover the topic. This one is on communication skills in general, and this one of match coaching.


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