How To Make Players Worse

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The USA men’s coach John Speraw has worked for many years with a sports psychologist (Andrea Becker) as an assistant coach. In their early days of working together, he was using a serving substitute for a particular player. After the match she told him to never do that again. Her reasoning was, you are only reinforcing the idea in the player that they are not a good server. (I may have remembered that story incorrectly. This link tells a different version of the story, or perhaps a completely different story). This story and explanation has resonated with me every since. Yes, you will see me using serving substitutes. Let’s move on. Nothing to see here.

The same situation manifests itself often with regards to middle blockers, a common theme of mine. Coaches, well meaning as they are, create rules to maximise the efficiency of the team. Often that means defining who should play the ball in different situations. Most often it is the middles who are marginalised. They are not allowed to play the ball, which means they never practice playing the ball, which means they never get better at playing the ball, when means when they do touch the ball the quality is most likely poor, which means the coach is ‘proved’ correct and reinforces their rules in an emotional speech to the team. Add to this the endless jokes about middle blockers and not only do middles’ skills erode, they have no motivation to improve them. Again ‘proving’ the coach correct.

If you want to study setting in a bit more detail check out this presentation that studies the techniques and tactics of 10 of the top setters in the world, both men and women. And for very special price on all current webinars, 8 in all, including ones on BLOCKING, PRACTICE, COMMUNICATION and SCOUTING click here.

Specialisation, starting with Doug Beal’s USA teams, had a massive impact on the quality of the game. Players could spend more time doing things they were good at. Practice time could be optimised in areas that individual players actually in. Players got better at the individual areas they specialised in, so the game evolved. All of it is logical. But as always there are unintended consequences. Individual players got better at specific areas they got worse at the whole game. The other unintended consequence was that coaches got used to the idea that they could make rules to control the game. And coaches love nothing more than rules.

Fast forward 40 years. There are more rules. A really common one you will see now in men’s volleyball is that all high balls must go to position 4. And because liberos play in the position 5 (ie facing position 2/1), it is position 6 players who are required to set high balls when the setter takes the first ball. Here is an example of position 6 taking a ball that three other players were better placed to play. There are some valid reasons that position 6 players should be an important option, ie to attack the second ball or fake attack and set fast, but having the position 6 (outside hitter) set every ball to position 4 (the other outside hitter) makes volleyball boring and predictable. And most importantly it makes individual players, ie everyone who is not an outside hitter, worse at playing volleyball.

The lesson is if you want to make players worse, make more rules.

To see view inside my gym and get an insight into my practice philosophy, click here.

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